This week a Delta Air Lines flight from Detroit to Chicago was quarantined upon arrival by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Why? Because CDC thought the woman might have monkeypox. Why on earth would they think that? Therein lies the story.
First off: according to the CDC themselves, monkeypox kills between 1% and 10% of people in Africa who contract it. So, it’s worse than chickenpox, but not up to the level of Marburg or ebola.
So, Lise Sievers went to Africa to work on her pending adoption of two special-needs children. During the four months she was there, she developed what the Minneapolis Star-Tribune describes as a “bad rash” that she thinks was caused by bedbugs. One of the boys she’s adopting also has what her son, Roger, described as “pus-filled bumps.” Still with me? Lise has a rash. Her son-to-be has bumps.
In a phone call with her mother, Lise mentioned the rash and the bumps. Her mother, no doubt with the best of intentions, called a local hospital and asked them (and I’m paraphrasing here) “What kind of treatment do you need to get if you’ve been in Africa and have pus-filled bumps on your skin?” I’m sure that the hospital staff jumped at the chance to make a diagnosis over the phone; I hear doctors love that stuff. Anyway, somehow the story got garbled until the hospital staff thought that Lise, the passenger, had the pus-filled bumps. At some point, a bright star at the hospital decided “hey, this might be monkeypox,” so they did the natural thing: they called CDC… who then quarantined the airplane for a couple of hours.
Is this a “better safe than sorry” thing, or an ignorant overreaction?
I don’t blame Lise’s mom; here’s what Lise’s son Roger had to say (a textbook example of “Minnesota nice” if I’ve ever seen it):
“It was all misinformation from a speculative call that my grandmother made,” Roger Sievers said. “She’s just a concerned old lady. As sweet as can be. And she makes a mean banana bread, I can tell you that right now.”
It should be said that I bow to no one in my respect for the CDC, particularly their Special Pathogens Branch, nor my desire to avoid a pandemic. However, if I recall, we weren’t even quarantining entire airplanes when there were known cases of H1N1 or SARS aboard. This seems like a bit of an overreaction to say the least. The CDC’s page on airline travel sets out their requirements for cabin or flight crew aboard an airplane who suspect that someone aboard has communicable illness: basically the pilot’s supposed to call ATC and tell ’em that someone aboard has Belgian waffle disease or whatever. Seems reasonable enough.
On the other hand, it sure does seem like the hospital people jumped the gun a bit. This seems like a textbook case of “if you see something, say something” carried to an extreme. At least I can take some comfort from the fact that the TSA wasn’t involved.
(Bonus for those who read to the end: The Last Psychiatrist’s review of Contagion. Contains spoilers.)