As news of the Ebola outbreak has spread, so have fears of a sweeping epidemic that could threaten lives and wreak havoc on communities. While Ebola can be fatal, health officials say that fears of an epidemic threatening the United States are largely unfounded and the resulting stress could be worse than the disease itself.
News of a Liberian man showing symptoms of the disease while visiting Dallas flared these fears, but officials quickly worked to pacify residents. Texas Health Commissioner Dr. David Lakey told NBC News:
“The concern is the stress of this and the fear of this could be more damaging to the community than the virus itself. This isn’t West Africa. This is a very modern city. We don’t have the level of poverty that they have in West Africa that is conducive to the spread of the disease.”
President Obama has also responded to fears by noting that chances of a U.S. epidemic are “extremely low,” according to NBC News.
The 2014 Ebola outbreak is the largest since the disease was first discovered in 1976, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So far, the outbreak has mainly affected the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.
All of these countries have been plagued throughout their histories by poverty, conflict, and political instability, which contribute to the outbreak spreading. The U.S., by comparison, has one of the world’s best health care systems, an organized network of public health officials, and first-world infrastructure including clean water.
What is Ebola?
Ebola’s official name is Ebola virus disease, and it can be spread from person to person or to people from wild animals through direct contact with bodily fluids or materials, such as towels or clothing, containing traces of these fluids. Ebola does not spread through the air, like a cold or flu.
About 50% of those who contract the disease lose their lives, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Symptoms include fever and headache that are indistinguishable from other conditions, such as malaria, without laboratory testing.
Why has this outbreak become so widespread?
Thousands of people have died in Africa, however WHO attributes the high number of fatalities to the lack of organized response, reports USA Today. Because of West Africa’s poorly equipped public health systems, the outbreak wasn’t recognized as one until three months into it, with at least 50 people infected.
The large number of patients overloaded the region’s ill-equipped hospitals already plagued by shortages of beds, equipment, and staff. Before the epidemic, Liberia’s doctor-to-patient ratio was one to 100,000, according to the Huffington Post. As people are turned away from treatment, they return home and possibly infect friends, family, and neighbors, worsening the outbreak.
Although these countries are beginning to make great economic strides—Sierra Leone and Liberia ranked among the world’s ten fastest growing economies in 2013, according to Business Insider—they still have much poverty and internal strife that impacts officials’ abilities to treat epidemics.
Fighting the outbreak could require $1 billion, the United Nationa estimates. Despite humanitarian efforts, many people are not getting the treatment they need. Samuel Worthington, president of InterAction, a non-governmental organization focused on helping impoverished people, declares:
“The Ebola outbreak is the result of a frail health care system.”
Unfortunately, this medical and humanitarian crisis will thwart the area’s progress just as it was beginning to recover from conflict, Worthington writes in the Huffington Post. Food prices have skyrocketed because of restrictions on imports affecting food. Meanwhile, the outbreak has prevented many farmers from working their fields, limiting the domestic supply of food and raising prices.
Travel restrictions and impaired employee health have impacted mining operations, which comprise a significant chunk of Sierra Leone’s and Liberia’s economies. Tourism has come to a halt as many airlines have established bans on flights to affected nations, although the U.S. has not, as of Oct. 6, issued a travel ban.
What has the United States done to protect citizens?
The United States has responded, both at home and abroad. Although no travel ban has been issued, President Obama has said screening guidelines are under development to ensure passengers don’t carry the disease, Reuters reports.
In September, the U.S. sent military and medical resources to affected areas. The U.S. also pledged to help Liberia build Ebola treatment facilities and open a command center to organize international relief efforts, according to The New York Times.
How can I help?
Many organizations have mobilized to support the citizens of West Africa. Donating money helps pay for needed medical supplies, medicines, and food.
AmeriCares has deployed an emergency response team, helping to deliver supplies such as medicine and protective wear, and lending its expertise to help high-level officials develop response strategies.
The faith-based group Samaritan’s Purse has established Community Care Centers, helped train caregivers, and launched an educational campaign, complete with prevention and control kits, to help stop the spread of disease.
UNICEF has been active on the ground, filling jumbo jets with food, water, medicine, and emergency health kits before flying them to affected areas.
The Red Cross has also implemented on-the-ground efforts in West Africa, opening a treatment center in Sierra Leone and deploying medical experts who help with gruesome tasks like tracing the disease to determine whom those contaminated have come into contact with.
Doctors Without Borders has sent hundreds of staffers to run treatment centers in affected regions. A psychologist works to provide counseling to patients, their families, and relief workers. The organization has also trained community health workers to deliver important messages about protective measures people can take to avoid contracting Ebola and what to do in case of a suspected infection.
These organizations are working hard to help stabilize the crisis. Adequate community education is imperative, as is making sure there are enough medical and food supplies to treat those impacted. Even access to clean water is a problem in many of these countries, hindering proper sterilization of supplies and sanitization efforts.
If you can offer any support, contributing to a relief organization listed here will save lives and help end this deadly outbreak.
Do you think fears of a U.S. Ebola outbreak are overblown?
Image by European Commission DG ECHO via Flickr