By Alexander Holst
In March 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease in Guinea, West Africa. Neighboring countries Sierra Leone and Liberia reported first cases in the following months. In August, the WHO declared a public health emergency of international concern. Since then, the total number of patients has risen to over 13,500. Over 4,900 have died. More than 99% of all infected live in one of the three West African countries. Less than 30 cases in total have been reported in Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Spain, and the US. Now, the question arises how this rather concentrated outbreak can be explained.
Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with infected individuals who are suffering from symptoms, which initially include fever, fatigue and muscle ache. In later stages patients may suffer from severe vomiting, diarrhea, and impaired organ functions.
Since there is no cure, the strategy to contain an outbreak is to put an infected individual under quarantine, treat the symptoms, and ask everyone who has been in contact with the patient since symptoms were noted to be on alert. In mid-October, as a result of that strategy, Nigeria and Senegal were declared Ebola-free.
During times of crisis, elites in media, politics and the scientific community have an immense influence on public opinion. Some news outlets have called for keeping the current Ebola outbreak in perspective. They point to the fact that other illnesses cause far more suffering and death. Every year, at least 250,000 people are estimated to die from the seasonal flu. Malaria is estimated to have caused 627,000 deaths in 2012 alone.
However, to imply that the current Ebola outbreak does not deserve global attention because other diseases plague the world even more would be the wrong conclusion. One of the main causes for the prevalence of Ebola in the West African countries are their rather weak health care systems. Improving health services, both through ad hoc measures now and permanent ones in the future, will also help to reduce suffering from other diseases menacing the world’s poorest.
Another question that arose was whether an occurrence of Ebola in Western countries could be possible. However, the risk of an outbreak of similar scale in high income countries is unlikely. Yet, some Western news outlets and politicians have been indulging in fear mongering. In light of the upcoming US-midterm elections on November 4, several candidates have called for travel bans from and to Ebola stricken countries. Two weeks ago, a handful of US states even introduced special rules requiring every returning health worker associated with Ebola treatment to be put under quarantine, regardless if they show symptoms or not. This led to sharp criticism from the UN and public health experts, some states have relaxed their rules since.
Unfounded isolation and stigma would lessen health worker’s willingness to travel to countries where there help is needed most and, therefore, worsen the situation there.
The international community has to act swiftly to fight the suffering where it is most severe. Concerted efforts have to be made to increase resilience in the most vulnerable societies.
However, when facing risks of terror, disease or natural disaster, it is important to strike a balance. Journalists and politicians should not exaggerate minor threats, nor downplay major ones. Policies need to be based in evidence, not fear.