The Ebola epidemic is spreading rapidly - leaving a wake of suffering - in large part because West Africa has shockingly few medical facilities or trained personnel. But it's exploding exponentially because of mistrust, a panel of experts told a packed crowd on the Stanford campus last evening.
The numbers, as described by Ruthann Richter in a just-published story, are sobering:
Officially, more than 5,800 Ebola cases and 2,800 deaths from the disease have been reported in four countries: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. But panelists said those figures were vastly underestimated. At the current rate of spread, in which the number of new infections is doubling every three weeks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1.4 million people could be infected by the end of January 2015 in the absence of dramatic interventions, said Douglas Owens, MD, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Health Policy at Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies.
But even with “very aggressive” intervention, Owens said, it’s estimated there would be at least 25,000 cases by late December. If intervention is delayed by just one month, there will be 3,000 new cases every day; if it’s delayed by two months, there will be 10,000 new cases daily, he said. “It gives you a sense of the extraordinary urgency in terms of time,” Owens told the audience.
During the talk Stanford health-policy expert Paul Wise, MD, screened a CNN video that depicts a man escaping from a treatment facility in Liberia. “You have to create treatment centers that are of the highest quality and that treat people with dignity — so people will want to go there, rather than escape,” he said.
Building trust starts local, Tara Perti, MD, told the audience. She works as a CDC epidemic intelligence service officer and spent time in both Guinea and Sierra Leone this summer:
In Guinea, she traveled to a village north of the capital city of Conakry, where she met two young men who had recovered from the disease, which has a fatality rate as high as 70 percent. One of the men had lost five members of his family, but he had become a community advocate. He traveled with Perti to a neighboring village, where they met a woman who was sick and whose son had died of the disease. “She was very fearful of going to the treatment center… but she was ultimately convinced to seek treatment. She recovered and was able to return home,” Perti said.
“The patient who survived was tremendously helpful because he could speak from experience and be credible. There needs to be more of these. In the forested region of Guinea, there are a lot of superstitions and different beliefs besides germ theory, and so it’s very challenging to go into those areas and help people understand that Ebola is a virus, it’s real and we do have ways to help patients.”
Becky Bach is a former park ranger and newspaper reporter who now writes about science as an intern at the Office of Communications and Public Affairs.
Previously: Interdisciplinary campus panel to examine Ebola outbreak from all angles, Expert panel discusses challenges of controlling Ebola in West Africa, Should we worry? Stanford's global health chief weighs in on Ebola and Biosecurity experts discuss Ebola and related public health concerns and policy implications
Photo, of health workers at an Ebola treatment unit in Liberia, by USAID/Morgana Wingard