|Posted on February 18, 2015 at 7:10 PM|
The Ebola virus is typically seen as one of the many “infectious diseases of poverty” that resides in the sub-Saharan region of Africa, others include Malaria and Dengue fever. This is actually far from the truth. Researchers have started to suggest that Ebola’s new title is better described as an “infectious disease of development”. There is no doubt that the Ebola virus is a real issue in the African countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, with over 8,000 deaths experienced during this current outbreak alone. The press have managed to overdramatise this event and their predictions of a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 have, so far, proved very wrong. So how much of what they say is actually true? Is Ebola as big a problem as they convey? If Ebola is such a big problem, what research is underway to eliminate it? Is the UK doing enough? These are the questions that many of us are contemplating and are not sure who we can trust to give us the truth.
The grand title of “an infectious disease of development” tells us how and why this Ebola outbreak is now spreading on such an immense scale in comparison to its predecessors. The current Ebola epidemic has claimed a death count of almost five times the number ever recorded due to the virus. This dramatic increase has been aided by the Ebola virus’ ability to spread and researchers now believe the cause is Africa’s economic development. In recent years Sierra Leone and Liberia have both suffered civil wars, which have disrupted economic and cultural growth. Now these conflicts are over, the two countries have continued their economic development – it now takes 3 hours to cross Sierra Leone in a car, as opposed to 3 days 20 years ago. This increased connectivity between and within countries has allowed people, and crucially also viruses, to get around far quicker. Reduced cultural development during the civil wars has also encouraged the spread of Ebola. The virus itself preys on compassion, which can be seen with many of the traditional burials in some parts of Western Africa. It is often tradition to kiss the forehead of a loved one before their burial. Due to the nature of Ebola’s transfer (contact with bodily fluid), this leads to a heightened chance of infection. It is therefore spread within a localised community.
Fear spreads more quickly than a disease. It is this statement that suggests the News companies have been over-dramatising the Ebola outbreak. However, one should not be so dismissive of this viral epidemic as there are many who believe the projected total death count will prove to be a severe underestimation. Various newspapers have scared us with alarming statistics suggesting that the fatality rate will exceed 70% amongst the confirmed Ebola patient population. However, it is important to note that the chances of catching the virus in a first world country are incredibly slim, with virtually no cases being record that weren’t contracted in West Africa and brought back to the western country.
One issue often overlooked in the Ebola discussion is that the diagnosis and treatment of Malaria has been greatly confused with the diagnosis of Ebola, and vice versa, resulting in potentially lower numbers of Ebola patients recorded. However, this is not a major issue in the grand scheme of things, as the outbreak of Ebola has forced countries to update and upgrade their medical health systems, which will help the diagnosis and treatment of both Ebola and Malaria in the future. Arguably one of the most important reasons why the Ebola virus has managed to spread so quickly is the unstable, and in most cases inadequate, healthcare provision. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea share a combined total of around 1/20th of the number of doctors per 100,000 people in comparison to the United States, a potent example of why these West African countries need to develop their healthcare systems. 
Medecins Sans Frontieres (a.k.a. Doctors Without Borders) is a non-governmental organisation aiming to give medical aid where it is required most. Currently their work has sent over 3500 staff out to countries struck with Ebola,working in 6 specialised facilities. However, they are not alone. With benefactors and philanthropists, over £1 billion have been pledged globally to fight the war against Ebola. However, it is not simply a problem that can be solved by throwing money at it. Research is currently underway in areas such as plasma therapy and potential vaccines. The theory behind plasma therapy is that by transferring blood containing antibodies to a patient with Ebola, the patient will stand a better chance of fighting the infection. In December, William Pooley (the British nurse who contracted and went on to survive the Ebola virus) was sent to America to donate his blood plasma to Ian Crozier. Crozier then went on to survive virus after previously being in a critical state, as a result of the therapy. The research into vaccination, however, has not been so successful. Currently there is no consistently effective vaccine for the virus with any treatment given being supportive and symptomatic based. Oral rehydration therapy, for instance, aims to give the patient enough time for their own immune system to fight off the virus, replacing electrolytes and fluids lost.
The important question is simply “Can we stop it?”. The answer is unfortunately not so simple. We have not stopped it yet; the Ebola virus is still spreading. However, there is a glimmer of hope in all of this: the number of reported cases per week is falling and has been since early November in Liberia and Sierra Leone. If the people of West Africa are educated in the ways that Ebola spreads, there is a chance we can quench this outbreak and with the lessons learned, be prepared for future potential epidemics.
* Information was obtained for the Wellcome Foundation discussion on the Ebola Virus.
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