The Ebola Epidemic

The Ebola Virus, formerly known as ‘Ebola Haemorrhagic Fever’ is an often fatal disease originating in the tropical rainforests of Central Africa. 932 people have died as a result of contracting the disease in this latest outbreak. The disease is spread to humans through the handling and butchering of infected animals. Once an individual is infected, the disease replicates quickly and can have a mortality rate as high as 90%, however this high percentage is in part influenced by the poor medical infrastructure in the countries where the disease is active.

Ebola strikes fear into the general populace. It sounds like something out of a horror movie, with symptoms including external bleeding from the ears, eyes, and mouth, although this usually comes after the vomiting and stomach pain which appear earlier in the process following an incubation period of 2-21 days. For the disease to spread people have to come into contact with the blood, body secretions or organs of an infected person. It is not an airborne disease, nor can it pass through usual social contact. There is no known cure for Ebola, although a highly experimental serum has been given to American doctors and missionaries who have been brought back from Africa showing encouraging signs.

There are reasons as to why it has been such a struggle to eradicate the disease. All the various strands of the Ebola Virus are ‘zoonosis’ which means they are animal infections transmissible to humans. When the virus is contained in the human populace, the carrier of the disease retreats back into the depths of the jungle waiting for the next group of villagers to stumble across what they believe is easily accessible food. The identity of the host is unknown, although it is speculated that a species of fruit bat might be the contaminated carrier.

In addition to this, African burial rituals may also be playing their part in the spread of the disease. The disease can survive on the hosts’ body days after it has had a fatal impact upon them. In parts of Africa it is common for mourners to touch the skin of the deceased person, at which point any broken skin or contact with areas such as the mouth would result in transmission of the disease.

Previous outbreaks have been dealt with through isolation tactics, identifying those with the disease early and restricting contact. However as the table provided by the World Health Organisation (WHO) illustrates, the current outbreak is spreading more rapidly than usual and the current round of containment tactics are not working.ebola

The World Health Organisation have warned that the current epidemic is spiralling out of control, and the virus is moving faster than efforts to control it.

Action has been taking to try and mitigate the outbreak. The World Health Organisation has created a $100 million response plan as part of an intensified international campaign to bring the outbreak under control. The key elements of the new plan draws on lessons learnt from former outbreaks, it encompasses the scaling up of outbreak control measures and strengthening preparedness and response measures in neighbouring countries. Countries have also been looking to assist the Ebola stricken areas with their own initiative such as £2 million in aid from the UK for affected countries as well as the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention issuing a level one alert allowing extra resources to be diverted to the epidemic.

Some Airliners such as Dubai Emirates and British Airways have suspended flights over Ebola stricken countries in Africa as a result of a “deteriorating public health situation” with precautionary steps taken to protect customers. The fear of this disease is rife in the West. Prominent figures in the U.S such as Donal Trump even called for the Ebola stricken doctors to be left to ‘suffer the consequences’ back in Africa, and Obama announced that delegates from affected countries will be screened. Infographics are also being produced to reassure the American populace. Precautionary measures are being taken across the West for any candidate suspected of carrying the disease entering the UK, such as recent Ebola tests being carried out on a female passenger who died upon arrival to the UK despite assurances that the risk to the UK remains ‘very low’.

Efforts on the ground to tackle Ebola are being hampered not only by a lack of health infrastructure in the infected countries, but also a disbelief in the virus itself. Indeed some reports confirm that there is a deep rooted suspicion of western medical practices and a dogmatic disbelief in the viruses existence. This had led to Liberian Defence Minister Brownie Samukai sternly warning that “Anybody caught stoning health workers will be drastically dealt with by the army”. However they remain in the short lived minority, with many now regularly checking the U.S embassy’s website for new modes of preventing the spread of the disease.

The bleak outlook of this latest Ebola outbreak raises some serious questions on the international stage. First and foremost we need to consider the impact that isolating these countries might have, such as the grounding of planned flights to the regions. It can only serve to negatively impact the commerce in these regions, and when we overlay that with the fact that it is a disease which afflicts impoverished Africans who are obliged by a scarcity of options to eat bats and other wild creatures, then isolation tactics will be detrimental to others within the region. The knock on commercial effects of isolating the affected countries may encourage more to scavenge for food out of necessity increasing their risk of contracting the disease. In addition to this, restrictions on movement may of induced more fear and panic in the local populace further entrenching the issue as nurses have allegedly abandoned work for fear of catching the infection and bodies are left to rot on the streets, whilst a business as usual approach may of mitigated the extent of the panic.

Some commentators such as Dr Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health have advocated claims these epidemics are borne out of a moral bankruptcy. Dr Ashton suggests that if the disease were to turn up on the shores of Britain, then and only then would we push for a cure. He blames the unwillingness of the pharmaceutical industry to invest in research for a cure down to financial reasoning, as the numbers involved are too small and don’t merit investment in their eyes. He believes that real attention must be placed on the poverty and environmental squalor in which these epidemics thrive. So that brings to question, is Ebola the price of capitalism? If an entire continent could be jeopardised because research isn’t financially viable as it is only a disease contracted by the worlds’ poorest, it would indicate that claims of a moral bankruptcy aren’t without validity. With the diseases’ re-emergence in an ever more interconnected world we could be reaching a turning point; as fear of the spread of the disease through flight continues to unnerve the developed world, we could perhaps see an end to the “out of sight, out of mind” mentality afforded to such diseases.

By Stephen Mirkovic

Tags: , , , ,

Categories: Africa

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