World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan reports that the number of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) cases are rapidly declining. However, the United Nations-affiliated agency says the world community must not become complacent in efforts to contain and eliminate the disease.
This claim and others have given hope that the worse outbreak of the dreaded disease may be coming under control. Most cases have occurred in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In the region, Nigeria, Mali and Senegal rapidly responded to a limited number of cases, halting the outbreaks there. Recently Senegal reopened its border with neighboring Guinea because of its “significant efforts” in fighting the Ebola outbreak; now people and goods are moving freely by land between the two countries.
In a WHO report dated Jan. 26, Dr. Chan discussed social conditions in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, which led to the disease’s rapid spread. She mentioned the decade-long civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone during the 1990s and early 2000s, which created tremendous dislocation and the breakdown of national institutions and public infrastructure. Also, political instability and unrest in Guinea have not created a favorable atmosphere for internal public infrastructure development. There have been numerous military coups over the last three decades in the mineral-rich former French colony.
Dr. Chan explained, “Prior to the outbreak, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone had only 1 to 2 doctors per nearly 100,000 people. … The Ebola outbreak cut this number down considerably. … The number of infected doctors, nurses, and other health care staff, at nearly 850 with 500 deaths, was unprecedented for Ebola. … The entry of Ebola into two new countries via infected air travelers was also unprecedented.”
Ebola Impact will continue
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that more than 8,675 people have died from this virulent strain of Viral Hemorrhagic Fever, and it is estimated that 21,797 have been infected in this outbreak. The epidemic has created economic and social challenges due to dislocation in the agricultural and transport sectors of the most impacted states.
Food deficits and shortages of consumer goods have resulted from the high number of cases affecting farm workers, drivers, health care and educational personnel. Delays in bringing products to local markets have prompted humanitarian organizations to call for assistance.
Yet, attempts to mobilize resources in response to the epidemic have been lacking. The United States and Britain have taken more of a militarized posture toward the crisis as opposed to addressing the problems associated with shortages of medical treatment facilities, medicines and protective gear.
The social impact will remain for years due to the increasing number of children orphaned by the pandemic. A Nigerian-based TV news station reports that in many cases relatives cannot be located to re-integrate the youth back into their family structures.
Nonetheless, recent developments have given rise to optimism. Statistics show that the rate of infection is declining significantly. Julia Belluz wrote, “Ebola diagnoses are now halving every 10 days in Guinea, every 14 days in Liberia, and every 19 days in Sierra Leone, according to [WHO]. … WHO declared Mali Ebola-free this week after a small outbreak there.” (Vox.com, Jan. 26)
Vaccine sent to Liberia for trials
Some 300 doses of an Ebola vaccine produced by GlaxoSmithKline were sent to Liberia on Jan. 23 for a clinical trial. The corporation said it will send 30,000 doses of the vaccine to the nation to use in clinical trial testing for those at risk of catching the disease — including health care workers, others close to people with Ebola and burial workers.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government announced that the EVD vaccine trial would begin by early February. The National Institutes of Health assisted in developing two vaccines that are slated to be tested.
Developing effective vaccines is crucial in preventing another epidemic, say many health experts and humanitarian organizations.
However, regarding prospects for improving the health care infrastructures in these most severely impacted West African states, a different approach to governing must come into being. Relying on the former colonial and current neocolonial states in Europe and North America will only result in future outbreaks of EVD and other infectious diseases, such as polio, measles, cholera and malaria.
In the West, concern around the EVD outbreak relates, in part, to the threat the pandemic posed to the U.S. and other Western countries. Cases of the disease in the U.S., including one fatality, led to the politicization of the disease and focus on its victims. After two nurses in Dallas recovered from Ebola, the debate about how to handle the outbreak has largely receded.
Until the disease is tackled, controlled and eliminated, there will always be a danger to Africa and the international community.