Aug. 7 — Ebola was identified 40 years ago in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then called Zaire. Two hundred and eighty people died in this first reported outbreak, on the banks of the river Ebola, out of 318 infected, for a fatality rate of 88 percent.
For the next 40 years, Ebola was a deadly disease that affected remote, isolated, lightly populated areas of Central Africa. Because it killed so many of those infected quickly, the disease most often was contained to the small community it ravaged.
It was noticed because it was so virulent, but not a lot of effort was put into studying it and learning how to treat it because it only affected a remote, very poor and less significant part of the world in the eyes of the capitalists — where Black Africans live. The total number of people killed was also much less than those killed by more common diseases like malaria or even flu.
It appears that the reservoir of the disease is among fruit bats. Once the disease jumps to humans, it is spread by direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual. Chimpanzees and gorillas also get infected and die from Ebola because they eat the fruit contaminated by the bodily fluids of the bats.
But as Ebola was popping up now and then in Central Africa, the world was growing much more connected. Ecological changes also concentrated the fruit bat populations. African countries grew more connected, with people easily moving back and forth on better roads and airplanes.
The biggest and most widespread outbreak of Ebola began in the West African country of Guinea in March, spreading to Liberia and Sierra Leone. As of Aug. 4, at least 932 people in four countries — Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria — have died out of 1,711 infected. (World Health Organization statement, Aug. 6) Only one of the deaths occurred in Nigeria.
There have been two potential cases of Ebola reported in New York City, but neither of them has been confirmed. The World Health Organization reported a suspected case in Saudi Arabia on Aug. 6 that also hasn’t been confirmed.
Two white, U.S. medical missionaries, employed by Samaritan’s Purse in Liberia, contracted Ebola. They were first treated with a special serum developed by the U.S. firm Mapp, which has ties to the Defense Department, according to the New York Times of Aug. 6. When their health stabilized, they were flown to isolation wards at Emory Hospital near the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. Questions were immediately raised by the WHO and others in Africa why only white U.S. citizens were treated outside normal protocols.
The CDC is the federal agency in charge of responding to epidemics and directs the work done by the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health.
The WHO, at a meeting August 1 of public officials in Conakry, the capital of Guinea, said that this outbreak of Ebola is moving faster than the efforts to control the disease. WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said the meeting ‘‘must be a turning point’’ in the battle against Ebola, which is now infecting people in three African countries for the first time in history.
“If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”
While according to Chan the general public ‘‘is not at high risk of infection,’’ the WHO is planning a $100 million campaign to bring in hundreds of health-care workers to the afflicted countries.
On August 7, the WHO designated this Ebola outbreak “a major public health emergency of international concern,” which would allow states and communities to impose quarantines and movement restrictions.
All three of these countries suffered from decades of colonialism and neocolonialism that left them impoverished and lacking the necessary infrastructure and skills to combat this epidemic. In addition, Sierra Leone and Liberia recently went through vicious civil wars. A number of the deaths in these countries have been of medical personnel treating Ebola patients. The laboratories needed to test for Ebola are sparse, and this means there are unnecessary delays in treating it.
The world press is sneering at the poor public health response in these countries, which relies on the cops and the army to enforce quarantines. Quarantines are the recommended tool to limit Ebola to families where a member has died from Ebola. But the depiction of people’s response to these quarantines shows the press to be completely and dangerously ignorant of the cultural issues involved.
Traditionally, the close relatives of the dead person wash the body before friends and family come by to pay their last respects. And then the body is buried with dignity. Having a burial detail in hazmat suits come charging in to take the body to a crematorium is extremely repugnant.
Need sensitive handling
West Africans understand malaria, which kills far more people, especially young children, and cholera. But given their long, cruel history with their colonial and neocolonial masters, they don’t welcome outsiders coming into their communities and ordering them around. And given that hospitals and medical personnel, like the Samaritan’s Purse workers, were careless or ignorant about how to ward against Ebola contamination, this popular antipathy towards Western medicine has some factual basis.
As part of its campaign, the WHO wants to bring in hundreds of public health specialists, many of them coming from the ranks of the U.S.’s CDC. The CDC already has some specialists working on quarantines in Freetown.
The specialists from the CDC are being presented as professionals with deep experience in public health. However, this institution too has made serious mistakes recently, in separate cases handling anthrax and smallpox, both deadly diseases.
In the U.S., the crisis in public health services is due to austerity and the perception that it is hard to make profits from such services.
While the way Ebola spreads makes it unlikely that it will become a worldwide threat, this latest outbreak has infected and killed more people than the total number of all past outbreaks. It has jumped international boundaries and popped up in widely scattered countries like Nigeria and Saudi Arabia.
Capitalism is inspired by the possibility of profits. Market-driven industry has little interest in establishing a culturally sensitive, internationally coordinated, well funded public health system. And that means the world is taking a major risk.