As of September 28, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, so far, more than 7,100 people have been infected with and more than 3,300 have died from the Ebola virus. These estimates of what has happened are almost certainly far too low; the estimates of what will happen are terrifyingly high. The current Ebola epidemic may well become the worst human disaster in this century. And we are not doing enough about it.
Ebola is unlikely to become a major problem in the developed world. But… it seems increasingly likely that hundreds of thousands, and quite possibly millions, of men, women, and children will be struck down by this ghastly plague
Researchers will be trying to answer that question for years. This is the 24th known outbreak of Ebola virus disease since it was first recognized in 1976. All of the other outbreaks burned themselves out quickly, after between one and 425 people had been infected. Over nearly 40 years, fewer than 2,500 people are known to have become infected and fewer than 1,500 to have died. The outbreaks were all in Central Africa; they killed people in scattered villages, with few Western connections and fewer Western media on site.
However, the current outbreak started in West Africa, not Central Africa. I suspect this change in location will prove to be the key change, not so much in how it has affected human responses but how it has affected human susceptibility. Yes, the health infrastructures in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone were very poor (and are now far worse), but they were no worse than those in the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, or Uganda, the sites of most of the earlier outbreaks. But the lands where this outbreak start are more densely populated and better connected. Instead of burning out in one or two villages, hidden away in dense jungle, the virus spread from village to village, from village to town, and eventually from town to city. When it hit Monrovia, the slum-ridden, million-person capital of Liberia, an explosion was probably inevitable. (It has recently begun to expand in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, as well as Conakry, the capital of Guinea.)
The growth of the epidemic has brought with it the growth of terror and the destruction of already tenuous trust, both in governments and in modern health care. It has also brought death from other, treatable conditions that cannot now be treated in health care systems that Ebola has collapsed. It has brought restricted transportation and supplies and, as a result, in some places, sharply higher food prices. It may eventually bring, in spots, starvation.
Recriminations have already started. Why didn’t the West provide powerful help in March 2014, when the epidemic (already about a year old) began to be noticed? Or why hasn’t Western science, expensively pursuing the latest “me too” drug for common Western conditions, produced a treatment, cure, or vaccine for Ebola? These critiques seem too harsh. No previous epidemic has ever ballooned like this one, even in Central Africa. And the chance of an epidemic outside those traditional regions, let alone in the West, appeared remote.
And while some have pointed fingers at the West, others have focused on the behavior of the affected West African populations. Much has been made of their reluctance to abandon traditional methods of burying their dead, their lack of trust in modern medicine, and even their physical attacks on health care workers. But before blaming the victims for their poor infection control measures, put yourself in their shoes. A five year old – perhaps your five year old – is feverish and vomiting. She is crying and holding her arms out to you for comfort, for help. In West Africa you would not have the chance to telephone for an ambulance, with well-protected professionals to treat the child. Touching her could kill you. But what would it do to you – what would it make of you – to ignore her? As Benjamin Hale wrote in Slate, Ebola is a fantastically cruel disease, turning against us our own compassion, care, and love.
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