I Went to West Africa and All I Got Was This Lousy Ebola Panic

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The Ebola River runs through the Democratic Republic of the Congo and it was in that region in the mid 70s that a new virus was discovered. Since then, six distinct varieties of the virus have been isolated with Ebola Zaire making the news recently for its rise in western Africa. It belongs to the Hemorrhagic Fever family of viruses which also includes things like marburg, hantavirus, dengue, yellow fever, and tick borne encephalitis.

Ebola has largely become famous for its particularly graphic symptoms which include excess bleeding and vomiting. Extremely important to note is the only way to contract the disease is to come in contact with infected tissue or fluids. There are no recorded cases of airborne transmission to a person. I won’t go into further detail about the virus itself, but for those of you who are curious, I would highly recommend The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. It is in my top ten nonfiction books of all time and does an excellent job of mixing the history of with the science behind the virus.

Here is a graphic of all the Ebola deaths in Africa since the 70s.

Ebola Outbreaks[1
If you prefer your visual aids in bar graph form here is this.

Ebola Deaths By Year

As of the writing of this post there have been 729 deaths in the most recent outbreak which does make it the deadliest ebola outbreak in history. To give that number a little perspective, there are an estimated 564,300 deaths each year from malaria in Africa alone.[2] I’m not trying to downplay the fact that there is clearly an outbreak going on and people are dying in terrible ways, but the panic that surrounds this disease is a contributing factor to its death toll.

The Associated Press has not helped matters in the US. Earlier today they had to correct a headline that originally read, “Plans underway to get American sick with Ebola,” to, “Plans underway to retrieve Americans sick with Ebola.”[3] This was a story about two Americans who are being flown from Africa to Emory hospital in Atlanta for treatment. Donald Trump tweeted, “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!”[4]

Before I address Mr(not Dr) Trump, I want to reiterate that Ebola doesn’t spread that easily. It can’t be spread until someone starts showing symptoms(roughly two weeks after exposure) and even then you need direct contact with infected tissue or fluids. In a world class hospital in the CDC’s backyard there is nothing to worry about in regards to a sudden catastrophic plague in the US.

The question then becomes why is it spreading so much in Africa and why can’t we take Mr. Trump’s advice of just treating everything across the Atlantic. The places where this outbreak is occurring are not near proper medical facilities. People are dying in areas that make northeast Iowa look like an urban center. The hospitals that are there are not very well equipped for dealing with this sort of thing.

One story related in the book The Hot Zone is about an outbreak of Ebola starting in a hospital that was using the same needle with different patients because the facility had an extremely limited supply of needles. That sort of fluid exchange is one method ebola(and plenty of other infections) can spread, and just wouldn’t happen in a better facility. Better funding of the hospital for the purchase of clean needles would have saved lives.

The brave doctors who are venturing into the affected communities are also meeting resistance from the local population. They are finding roads blocked with cut down trees and villages defended with machetes. Doctors without Borders says that at least a dozen villages in the country of Guinea likely harbor the disease but are inaccessible due to safety concerns. Doctors trained in western medicine are being accused of spreading the disease.[5] In the villagers’ defense, I can certainly understand the region having a strong mistrust of outsiders coming in saying, “We’re here to help,” but when you mix a communicable disease with a reliance on witch doctors the result is going to be new cases and mounting deaths.

It is true that Ebola has no cure(although there is promising vaccine work in primates) and the strain currently at work has a fatality rate of 60%-80%. It is a disease that deserves to be taken seriously and sadly it isn’t largely because of who it affects. There is little to no incentive for a private company to work towards a cure because there’s no money to be made in vaccinating those who make less than a dollar per day. The governments of the affected nations are often too poor, too corrupt, or have plenty of things higher on the priority list than funding research into the disease. The result is that people will continue to die in a truly horrific way and working to prevent that is a noble goal.

Working to prevent that includes not allowing common sense to fall victim as well. This is not the plague that will wipe out humanity. The US won’t be turned into a Mad Max style wasteland by the transport of two sick people to a hospital in Atlanta. There are diseases that wipe out people at rates orders of magnitude above what Ebola is currently doing on the exact same continent. Does everyone remember SARS, mad cow, chronic wasting disease, ebola 20 years ago, swine flu, bird flu, or anthrax laced sponges? Did they all kill people? Yes. Did any of them wipe out civilization? No, and neither will this one. Treating this like a disease instead of the apocalypse is the fastest track to a cure.

As always, questions, comments, and criticisms are welcome. Answers are guaranteed.

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