Cennamology Chief Editor and Chief Science Correspondent
The Ebola virus has become the illness of the year, dominating the media since the summer. However, much of this media attention has not accurately portrayed the realities of the disease, instead stoking panic and fear among the American people. This irrational fear has only intensified after two cases of Ebola were recently diagnosed in the United States.
After Thomas Eric Duncan was diagnosed, and later died, of Ebola on U.S. soil, the fearful public suggested ways in which the spread of the disease could be prevented, the most popular of which was banning all flights to and from West Africa. However, ceasing all U.S. travel to and from the region will not solve the problem. It is an easy-way-out suggestion that will only trap people in the region, especially health workers who are disproportionately affected by the virus.
There are many more productive policies that the United States can pursue in order to stop an Ebola outbreak. These measures include increasing foreign aid to affected countries, educating infected regions so leaders have a proper understanding of the disease, and sufficient training and protection of relief workers.
During the civil war, the educated populace moved out of Liberia, resulting in an increase of illiteracy, unemployment, and poverty rates. As a result, Liberia does not have a sufficient amount of supplies, including gloves, disinfectant, and masks, or the optimal number of medical professionals to treat the disease. Stopping all flights to the region will only make this problem worse, quarantining West Africa and preventing them from obtaining the supplies needed to stop the outbreak. The root of the outbreak cannot be ignored if the virus is to be stopped. Quarantine will make the outbreak worse, not better and would possibly make America more vulnerable.
Cutting foreign aid to the region will make it challenging for medical professionals in the area to obtain the supplies and equipment they need to contain the outbreak. This will complicate their goal in stopping the outbreak, and will also cause medical professionals to be more vulnerable to the disease. More foreign aid to the region, instead of less, will give West Africa the supplies and personnel needed to fight the outbreak. When the outbreak ends, America will be safe from the disease. Therefore, foreign aid to the region is a very worthy investment.
The stigma and lack of understanding of Ebola in West Africa has helped make the most recent Ebola outbreak the worst in history. Cultures in the region have attributed the disease to witchcraft and supernatural forces, leading them to believe that modern healthcare cannot help them. West Africans have also shown distrust and hostility towards health workers.
Controlling the disease is also complicated by the traditional burial techniques of the region, which often involves large ceremonies. Because a body of a person who died of Ebola can infect those who come into contact with it, many Africans have contracted the virus at the funerals of deceased victims.
Although the illiteracy of the region stands as a hurdle to education efforts, a policy of informing the community leaders of how the virus is spread, how healthcare volunteers can assist the families of infected victims, and proper burial techniques of Ebola victims is necessary, as is improvement in the way this message is being conveyed.
Gathering information on who is infected and at what time is essential to not only stopping the spread of the disease, but to tracking it. Health workers track cases of Ebola infection during an outbreak in an attempt to better understand modes of transmission and to identify the first infected patient. Doctors often acquire blood samples from Ebola patients and run tests on the samples to study genetic variations in the virus. Using this information, scientists have been able to track transmission of the virus. This information is critical for research efforts to determine how Ebola outbreaks begin. One current hypothesis is that Ebola is spread from an animal host – possibly insects, monkeys or bats – to a single human carrier.
Researching a disease such as Ebola poses a particular challenge to researchers, as the disease can only be studied in human systems during an actual outbreak. Generally, disease researchers begin with an animal model. As their research progresses, human trials can begin. With Ebola, researchers are limited to studying animal models until an outbreak occurs.
During this time, researchers have a limited window of time to gain as much information on the disease as they can. A number of researchers across the world are currently working towards the development of a number of Ebola treatment and prevention options. However, this development requires access to samples for testing and – potentially – patients for treatment trials. Without access to the actual outbreak, this research will be severely hindered. As long as Ebola outbreaks are ignored, more and more people will continue to suffer. Halting research efforts in West Africa impacts those at risk not only now, but the countless numbers of people who will be at risk during Ebola outbreaks in the future.
The current outbreak is by far the worst in history and more medical professionals informed and qualified to fight the disease are needed more than ever. Many of the brightest medical professionals of the developed world will have to lend their assistance to the region. The CDC, NIH, and the private healthcare sector need to inform American aid volunteers in West Africa know that aid workers will be able to be treated if they contract the disease.
Recently, Senator Rand Paul said at a campaign rally that he is skeptical of the claims that Ebola poses no risk because it is only spread by contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. He said was skeptical because the government assured the American public in a similar manner during the HIV/AIDS epidemic during the 1980s and 1990s – that there was nothing to worry about because the disease is only spread by contact with bodily fluids. Dr. Adalja highlighted the main difference between HIV/AIDS and Ebola in his lecture, reassuring that differences between the two make Ebola harder to contract.
Even though HIV/AIDS and Ebola are both spread by contact with bodily fluids, have no vaccine, and originated in Africa, the main difference is that Ebola does not have the clinical latency period that HIV/AIDS does. A latency period is the length of time where a person with a disease can live with it having very minimal symptoms. Doctors believe that patients infected with Ebola are extremely unlikely to spread the disease until they begin to exhibit symptoms themselves. People infected with HIV/AIDS can unknowingly spread the disease during this latency period. Ebola does not have a latency period, and those with Ebola are typically quarantined once they experience the symptoms.
It is important to remember that Ebola is much less communicable than many other diseases that dominate the world today. And while the Ebola has been the cause of a devastatingly high number of deaths in West Africa, doctors have been extremely successful in treating the disease in the U.S. These specialized centers are specifically designed to eliminate almost any risk of the disease infecting the American public.
The virus has been so deadly across West Africa because the available centers and supplies are insufficient to control the outbreak. American doctors handle dangerous viruses and deal with contagious patients on a daily basis and although the risk of an outbreak is not completely eliminated, experts say it is extremely unlikely.
With all the problems facing the U.S., and the world, panicking about an Ebola outbreak in this nation is an inefficient energy. The fear that an Ebola outbreak will spread across the U.S. is unfounded and grounded in a more-than-healthy dose of cultural fear and very little actual science. Reaching out to Ebola patients, rather than shunning them, will be the key to stopping the current and future Ebola outbreaks.