No. We’ll probably be fine. West Africa on the other hand might not be. The Ebola outbreak in the region has been covered extensively in the media, far more than any other African epidemic. At the same time though, the global community has been slow to react with aid to the nations struggling to deal with a flood of cases and paralysed infrastructure. So what is Ebola, and should we really be so scared of it? What is happening in West Africa? And what is the world doing about it?
There’s no doubt that Ebola is an exceedingly vicious disease. It starts out with a fever and extreme headache and bodily pain, progresses through vomiting and diarrhoea and generally ends with internal bleeding and death. It is one of the few diseases that are still completely untreatable – there is no vaccine, and in most outbreaks around 90% of patients have died (in this outbreak it is a still huge 50%). The disease is spread by contact with bodily fluids, and is extremely infectious, even after death. This lethality and the disturbing symptoms of bleeding mean that Ebola has played a frequent role in movies and books in Western culture. It even coincidentally popped up as a joke in an old Friends episode that reran last week here in the Netherlands. But before asking whether we in the West should start worrying, we should first take a closer look at the outbreak in West Africa.
The disease first appeared in Guinea months ago, and has spread quickly throughout Liberia and Sierra Leone as well. Almost 2500 people have died, and more will definitely follow. Health services have struggled to cope with cases coming in from all directions. The disease has especially spread in the slums of cities like Freetown, where unsanitary conditions mean the virus spreads quickly. It’s also aided by the lack of knowledge among the local populations about how the virus spreads. This is a problem in a culture where dead bodies are lovingly prepared for burial by family, just when the virus is at its most infectious. The World Health Organisation has warned that the number of cases will spread exponentially.
They have also warned the world that not enough is being done to stop the disease. The countries hit hardest have tried measures like travel bans and lockdowns of infected suburbs, with limited success. Lack of resources means that people are being turned away from hospitals only to infect their families, and lack of knowledge means that locals distrust official statements about the disease. A mob even raided a hospital full of Ebola patients, stealing blood soaked mattresses in what a local police officer called “one of the stupidest things I have ever seen”. But these countries desperately need help before they can really combat the disease. While nations like the US are beginning to step up with personnel to help on the ground, time is running out.
This lack of haste in helping to fight Ebola in Africa is one part of the problem the world faces. Killer diseases in Africa are sadly common, and the international community is often slow to react when Africans are dying. However, the absurd title of this post hints at the other problem – a focus on “will Ebola reach our shores?” Ebola only spreads by physical contact, and an outbreak outside of Africa – while possible – would probably be quickly contained, even in the West. We need to avoid hysteria about the effects on our own lives, but take swift action to help those whose lives are truly threatened.