I remember the first outbreak of ebola in 1979. It only killed a few poor, black people, right? Wasn’t impacting on the rich, white people, after all. So why worry about it?
Here we are nearly forty years later and we have been caught with our pants down. The Plague that ravished Europe in the fourteenth century killed over 30% of the population, perhaps as high as 60%. It has been said society subsequently became more violent as the mass mortality rate cheapened life and thus increased warfare, crime, popular revolt, waves of flagellants, and persecution (Cohn, Samuel K.(2002). The Black Death: End of a Paradigm. American Historical Review, vol 107, 3, pg. 703–737).
In 2014 we are faced with a different disease with the potential for equally horrific mortality rates. In 1979 we had the skills and scientific knowledge to develop vaccines, yet we did not. Now we are faced with a race against time to control the spread.
“It is running faster than us, and it is winning the race,” Anthony Banbury told the UN Security Council. Source: BBC October 15, 2014
If you read no other references on this page, please read the extract of Paul Farmer’s diary.
Both nurses and doctors are scarce in the regions most heavily affected by Ebola. Even before the current crisis killed many of Liberia’s health professionals, there were fewer than fifty doctors working in the public health system in a country of more than four million people, most of whom live far from the capital. That’s one physician per 100,000 population, compared to 240 per 100,000 in the United States or 670 in Cuba. Properly equipped hospitals are even scarcer than staff, and this is true across the regions most affected by Ebola. Also scarce is personal protective equipment (PPE): gowns, gloves, masks, face shields etc. In Liberia there isn’t the staff, the stuff or the space to stop infections transmitted through bodily fluids, including blood, urine, breast milk, sweat, semen, vomit and diarrhoea. Ebola virus is shed during clinical illness and after death: it remains viable and infectious long after its hosts have breathed their last. Preparing the dead for burial has turned hundreds of mourners into Ebola victims.
Source: London Review of Books
More volunteers are needed to fight this battle but the reluctance to be on the front line is understandable – healthcare workers are particularly susceptible to infection. Many are willing to go, but need the support of their countries and employers to do so. The poorest communities are where ebola is spreading fastest. The communities with inadequate medical facilities, lack of education and understanding of transmission leading to a lack of trust in the concept of quarantine, hospitals and western medicine. Many believe people who go to hospitals die, rather than seeing quarantine as a means of reducing the spread of the disease.
So far Australia has not had a confirmed case of ebola, but the USA, Nigeria and Senegal have had imported cases, which in the case of the USA and Nigeria lead to other infections. Patients working in West Africa have been medically evacuated to their home countries of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, the UK, and the US for treatment.
Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Czech Republic, Italy, Kenya, Macedonia, Poland, Uganda, UAE (United Arab Emirates) and Zimbabwe are all testing or have tested suspected cases. Source: International SOS
In the USA scenario, one of the nurses who treated the imported case subsequently became ill and flew on a domestic flight while feverish. While it is unlikely too many of the other passengers had contact with her body fluids during the journey, it does highlight the risks we face globally to control the spread of ebola.
In the fourteenth century travel was not as far, fast or as frequent as it is today. Yet still The Plague managed to wipe out an estimated 25 million people. The population of the world was then less than 400 million. Now we number 7 billion. The maths are mind-boggling if we extrapolate.
Despite all the countries named above, still many countries are not taking the matter seriously enough, Australia included. Brian Owler, AMA president, has expressed his concerns.
“I don’t think it is the time to put our heads in the sand and suggest that Australia should shut its doors and just pretend the problem is a west African problem and let other nations handle the problem by themselves.” Source: The Guardian
While I understand Abbott’s expressed desire to ensure our citizens could be evacuated, due to our distance, to a closer nation for treatment if infected, I am more concerned we listen to people like Brian Owler. The Plague did reach Australia in 1900 (a total of twelve outbreaks until 1925): I am not at all convinced we are guaranteed to remain ebola-free. The greater hold ebola gets, the more at risk is everyone. Better we go to it to fight, than wait until it is knocking on our door. As the SBS reports, Australians do expect Australia to make a measurable contribution to the battle.
We know the scientific aspects of ebola. My question is the nearly forty years we waited to do something about it. Why are we testing vaccines now, when we are facing the possibility of 10,000 new cases a week by December 1, 2014? Should we not have been doing this in the 1980s?
There is also collateral damage. As so many resources are poured into the battle to fight ebola, other medical cases go untreated.
Even before the Ebola outbreak, these countries had very low doctor-to-patient ratios; Liberia had one doctor for every 100,000 people prior to the outbreak.
The ripple effect of the Ebola outbreak on West Africa’s health care means many people with prevalent ailments — such as typhoid, dysentery, malaria and malnutrition — may not receive treatment.
Source: Huffington Post
The poorest communities in the world are the least equipped to control such an outbreak. Money can only do so much. Money can only build hospitals if there are construction workers. Drugs can be manufactured and supplied but are useless if there are no medical staff to administer the drugs. We can’t buy our way out of this, we need troops on the ground.
Death is a daily part of life in many parts of the world and in the early stages ebola can look very similar to already prevalent ailments as listed above. In down-town Melbourne, Sydney or New York we do not have to distinguish between ebola, typhoid and dysentery on a daily basis. When faced with a case of ebola in the USA, the patient was initially sent home. How many other cases around the world may have already been treated in a similar manner? Are we learning anything from the USA situation? It seems we didn’t learn the lessons in 1979, let us not make the same mistake again.
There is also an interesting historical look at the first use of quarantine by Venice during The Plague and modern resilience theory at Ebola Battlers Can Learn Much From Venice’s Response To Black Death.
It’s not the specific countermeasures Linkov and his co-authors want to highlight but the disciplined-yet-improvisatory response. (The sight of people fleeing quarantine in West Africa highlights the difficulty of enforcing rules during periods of open-ended threats.)
Let us not forget that malaria kills over half a million people a year. Where are most of those deaths?
- Experts: Ebola Vaccine At Least 50 White People Away (The Onion)
- Ebola exposes a political malaise (Sydney Morning Herald)
- Grattan on Friday: Tony, pick up the phone to Barack on Ebola (The Conversation)
- A letter to the first person to die of Ebola in the US, from Rob Oakeshott (Crikey)
- World warned that Ebola ‘could be scourge like HIV’ (The Guardian)
- As Ebola epidemic tightens grip, west Africa turns to religion for succour (The Guardian)
- Australian health officials reassuring on Ebola but not all experts agree (Sydney Morning Herald)
- Ebola will continue to spread if not fought where it is now, says Australian doctor in Liberia (ABC News, video of doctor)
- Kerry on U.S. Response to Ebola for Members of Diplomatic Corps (US Embassy)
- Liberia: working with communities is the key to stopping Ebola (WHO)
- Medical worker quarantined in New Jersey under new Ebola safeguards (Reuters)
- Statement on the 3rd meeting of the IHR Emergency Committee regarding the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa (WHO)
- Ebola crisis: New York, New Jersey to quarantine Ebola healthcare workers after doctor tests positive; Mali toddler dies from virus (ABC)