Every day brings more details about the first case of the Ebola virus to be diagnosed in the U.S. And while experts say there is essentially no risk of a significant outbreak here in the states, much of the public remains worried. A poll by Harvard found that 39% of U.S. adults are concerned about a large outbreak here, and more than a quarter fear someone in their immediate family could get sick with Ebola.
If only there was someone around who could educate the American public about the actual level of risk. Someone who was trusted as a public health expert and whose job it was to help us understand what we really need to worry about and what precautions we should take.
Actually, that is one of the primary responsibilities of the United States surgeon general. There’s just one problem: Thanks to Senate dysfunction and NRA opposition, we don’t have a surgeon general right now. In fact, we haven’t had a surgeon general for more than a year now — even though the president nominated the eminently qualified Dr. Vivek Murthy back in November 2013.
The lack of a surgeon general is now becoming more than just one more abstract example of government gridlock.
According to former Surgeon General Regina Benjamin: “The surgeon general is America’s doctor. Delivering information to the American people in a language they can understand. Not having one right now, you don’t have that face and that person that the American people can identify with as their doctor who’s looking out for them on a large scale.”
This role is exactly what prior surgeons general have filled in times of heightened public health anxiety. When faced with the threat of bird-flu for example, the surgeon general at the time, Richard Carmona, talked to the public about prevention, pressured drug makers to ramp up production of effective treatments. He also educated us on risks associated with the disease and kept us updated on its status.
“For well over a century, the American public and the world has come to rely on the unbiased apolitical and scientifically driven information generated by the United States Surgeon General,” Carmona said. “In an era of hyper partisanship and general distrust of government, a highly qualified and experienced Surgeon General is needed now more than ever.”
As I reported previously, Murthy’s nomination has been held up by Republicans and a few red state Democrats due to this surprisingly controversial stance: He believes that guns can impact your health. Well, to be fair, this conservative coalition is not troubled by his stance, so much as they are fearful of the NRA, which decided to try to scuttle Murthy’s confirmation. The NRA wrote a strongly worded letter, Rand Paul put a hold on the nomination, and Red State Democrats begged Harry Reid to not force them to vote. It’s funny that the strongly worded letters of ordinary citizens don’t seem to have quite the same effect.
So thanks to NRA power and Senate cowardice, we are left with no surgeon general during a time when, we not only have Ebola arriving on our shores, but are also dealing with the mysterious Enterovirus, which is infecting and contributing to the deaths of children in the U.S.
“We need all hands on deck, and a surgeon general to echo and amplify the messages coming from the CDC, and to provide evidence-based advocacy to shape our response,” said Dr. Paul Farmer, chief of the Division of Global Health Equity at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
In other words, now would be a great time to have someone in the role of top doctor.
Murthy is a particularly good choice for that role, according to Farmer. “Dr. Vivek Murthy has long experience in community-based care, in communicating complex messages in a straightforward and even-handed manner, and is committed not just to passing on information to others, but to learning from them, too,” he added.
At the moment, Tom Frieden, the head of the Center for Disease Control, has been filling in for part of the surgeon general’s role, but he has his own vital work to attend to as both head of the CDC and the U.S. Ambassador to the World Health Organization.
Frieden was also a controversial pick for the Senate-confirmed position of U.S. Ambassador to the World Health Organization due to his aggressive approach to combating smoking, as well as his support of distributing condoms and clean needles to combat the spread of HIV in New York City. But when the Senate realized they didn’t have anyone in place to spearhead our Ebola coordination with the World Health Organization, they got their act together and confirmed Frieden for the post swiftly in mid-September. So this Senate can act. It’s time they move with equal haste to let Dr. Vivek Murthy get to work as our next surgeon general.