Ebola has infected over 10,000 people in west Africa since December of last year. The disease is mostly confined to Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, however recent reports have identified a case in Mali – a two-year old girl, who has since died, who travelled from Guinea – and another case in the US.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates the number of infected will reach 20,000 by the end of November, and over 1 million people could be infected in January next year.
As of today, over 4,900 people have died from Ebola. Could this many deaths have been prevented? Can they be prevented when another outbreak inevitably occurs?
Before the outbreak, Ebola was unheard of in west Africa. It took over three months for the disease to be identified and by then it had crossed national borders. Poor healthcare facilities and infrastructure, a culture distrustful of western medicine, and burial practices that involve much bodily contact with the deceased all contributed to the rapid spread of Ebola throughout the region.
Dr Noel Murphy, coordinator of the Masters programme of Immunology and Global Health at Maynooth University agrees that not enough has been done, “Poverty, lack of knowledge and mistrust of Western Medicine are major challenges to containing any outbreak.” He also states that the response in tackling the outbreak was inadequate, “The International response has been abysmally slow and way too small, even the levels they are talking about now. The African Union has also been inactive and ineffective. Things are only starting to move (and still too slowly plus a knee-jerk response) because western nations are beginning to be threatened.”
The biggest fear is that Ebola may spread to neighbouring countries, or to east Africa. Many African countries, including Kenya, have closed their borders to the afflicted nations.
[caption id="attachment_39" align="alignleft" width="300"] Ebolavirus - image captured by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith, made available under Creative Commons licence.[/caption]
Dr Murphy, who had worked in Kenya for several years, was keen to point out that east African nations would be better equipped to deal with an outbreak than those currently affected, “Kenya would be best placed to address the problem because its infrastructure is generally better than neighbouring countries. The main worry is if an outbreak occurs in a slum such as Kibera in Nairobi (the largest of its kind on the continent) then it will be very difficult to contain.”
This disease, like so many others, has an impact on the lives of those who escape infection. The World Bank estimates economic costs in excess of $1 billion, but it is the human costs that are most troubling. In the last year, UNICEF have said that, out of 4,900 deaths recorded due to Ebola, more than 3,700 children have been orphaned. This could be much more devastating if Ebola spreads to more densely populated countries.
Could this have been prevented if the healthcare infrastructure had been present or the international response had been more immediate?
Appropriate action is being taken to tackle Ebola because the west is finally being threatened by the disease. It’s no longer an African problem, but a global one. But what about next time?
The final word belongs to Dr Murphy, as he puts so succinctly the take-home message of the Ebola crisis, “This is a wake-up call for the Western world to up its aid to resource poor countries to strengthen their health systems as it is in our own interest that emerging diseases (and there will be more) are quickly contained where they occur – and that will be in developing regions.”