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The Panic of Ebola: Necessary Measures

Looking back on the Ebola Crisis, it can be said that reactions were both overblown and inefficient in handling the situation. The following was written at the time of the crisis in November.

In August, Korean Air Lines suspended all flights to Kenya, a country located in East Africa where there are no cases of Ebola. And just two weeks ago in Bronx, New York, two young Senegalese boys, ages 13 and 11, were beaten up by bullies on the playground who repeatedly chanted, “You’re Ebola.” What both incidences demonstrate is the ignorance that has been rampant across the globe partly due to the media coverage of the 2014 Ebola Outbreak.

The first known Ebola outbreak was confirmed in Guinea, in March of this year, spreading across West Africa. Despite rumors, the virus can only be spread through contact with fluids (including breast milk) and blood from an infected patient. Once in the body, Ebola attacks internal organs and connective tissues, causing severe bleeding, vomiting, aches, mental impairment and dementia Ebola should not be placed in the same category as smallpox due to its inability to spread via airborne transmission – a common misconception.

While hundreds of West Africans (Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria) had been dying from the deadly virus, what caught international attention was when two Americans who had been working for aid groups in Monrovia, Liberia contracted the virus in July. In addition to being transported back to the United States, these individuals were also immediately given access to an experimental drug cocktail called ZMapp, which consists of immune-boosting monoclonal antibodies that were extracted from mice exposed to Ebola DNA. What has been recently disputed is why this treatment wasn’t given to the several West Africans who too have become infected with Ebola.

Writer Arthur L. Caplan for the Waterloo Region Record suggests that it is because “privileged humans” are “always going to be the first ones to try it.” Caplan further states that due to the fact that drugs based on monoclonal antibodies cost a lot, “obviously far more than poor people in poor nations can afford to pay…tiny companies won’t enthusiastically give away its small supply of drugs for free.” While this may in fact be factual, is this a valid claim for the lack of humanitarian response for a virus that has been destroying lives in West African nations?

The recent media coverage of Ebola has tended to reinforce the notion of Africans being “the other” and its virus posing a threat to Western civilization.

We’re lacking the kind of passionate humanitarian response that we’ve seen for disasters like the Haiti earthquake or the Haiyan typhoon in the Philippines,” said Dan Kelly, an infectious disease physician and co-founder of the Wellbody Alliance, a non-profit health care organization in Sierra Leone.

With recent travel bans (British Airways and Emirate Airlines, for example) to West Africa, many aid groups are finding it difficult to send health workers into infected areas. The embargo on ships carrying cargo such as food and fuel to infected areas are also posing a detrimental threat to West African economies.

Although the Ebola outbreak has demonstrated the need for African governments to increase spending on healthcare infrastructure and improve the quality of healthcare, the rapid growth of the epidemic due to the lack of international response cannot and should not be ignored. The international aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has called the world’s response to Ebola “dangerously inadequate. Speculated to last for another six to nine months, it is essential that countries around the world work collectively with aid groups and governments in affected areas to combat the spread of the disease.

Remarks by United States United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power on Ebola at a General Assembly Session on Ebola, October 10 2014

The key to controlling this outbreak is rapid diagnosis, isolation and treatment of infected individuals. As Executive Director Stephen Cornish said at a seminar on Ebola last week, quarantine is not the answer. A quarantine that was held in Ebola-infected Liberia led to riots and looting. Startled by the incident, infected patients with the disease fled and found their way back into the general population –thus potentially spreading the virus.

With over 14 000 cases and 5000 dead, aid groups, foreign countries and governments must coordinate accordingly to execute the plan to squander the ruthless spread of the virus. A key to any intervention is to build trust with local communities who may see health workers from foreign countries untrustworthy and carriers of the virus. This gain of trust may then give health workers the ability to educate individuals on how the virus can be spread.

 Janan Lewars is a second year student in Trinity College at the University of Toronto. 

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