Ebola is inspiring irrational fears that are potentially more damaging than the disease itself

We need to look beyond the stigma that attaches to those who have been infected


For the British health worker infected with ebola who may be evacuated from Sierra Leone back to the UK as early as Monday, there are only hopes and prayers. There is no proven treatment for the disease. Supplies of the experimental drug ZMapp used on two American victims are exhausted, and the drug may anyway have prolonged their illness rather than made them better, according to the infectious disease specialist who treated them.

As he fights for his life, the health worker – who is employed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) - deserves our gratitude for his selfless dedication. Instead his return may spark fear. That would be an ignorant and foolish response.

Preparations have been made to fly him into RAF Northolt and transfer him to a specially equipped isolation unit at the Royal Free Hospital in north London, so the risk of him transmitting the virus within Britain is extremely low.

The ebola virus is spread via bodily fluids – blood, vomit, diarrhoea - and transmitted by touch (unlike flu which is an airborne disease). If you don’t touch, you won’t be infected. Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has said he would be prepared to sit next to an ebola patient on the Tube.

But what of the impact on the British victim’s colleagues who remain in Sierra Leone? We do not know how he came to be infected. There may be a straightforward cause – an accident with a needle used to take blood, perhaps – so measures can be taken to prevent it happening again. If not, it will add to the fears of those doctors and nurses who continue on the front line against the disease. They will wonder who is going to be next.

This is rational fear. It may even be helpful if it causes health workers to redouble their efforts to protect themselves. The fundamental rule on ebola is: don’t touch. But health workers must touch – to take blood for tests, administer fluids and antibiotics and provide the supportive treatment that can help patients survive. Hence the need for rigorous protection – gloves, masks, body suits – and immense care over the disposal of corpses and contaminated materials.

The bigger danger is the irrational fear which has infected families, communities, towns and cities across West Africa. As the virus has spread so have wild rumours about its cause, which have been variously attributed to witchcraft, a Western plot, and a conspiracy by African governments said to have introduced the disease in order to extract multi-million pound payments in aid from the West.

Irrational fear is posing as a great a threat to the countries affected as the virus itself. In Liberia and Sierra Leone, the two worst affected countries, hospitals and clinics have closed, leaving patients with other diseases such as malaria with nowhere to go for treatment. The official toll of 1,427 deaths and 2,615 cases in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone is certain to understate the real total, as many people with ebola in rural areas will have died and been buried without their ever reaching hospital. But even the real figure is likely to dwarfed by collateral deaths caused by the collapse of the countries’ health systems.

A clinic and quarantine centre in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia,  was attacked a week ago and 29 suspected ebola cases fled while an angry mob looted medical items, instruments and soiled bedding. They were heard chanting that ebola was a hoax by the Liberian president to get money.

At least 129 health workers have died fighting the current outbreak, according to the World Health Organisation. Yet instead of receiving gratitude for their dedication and courage, many have been ostracised and driven from their local communities.

Josephine Sellu, deputy matron in charge of the ebola nurses at the government hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, which lost 15 of its nurses to the disease before they were trained in how to protect themselves, was herself threatened by the remaining nurses. “If one of us dies again, prepare yourself to die,” she was warned.

Now a more rigorous system for testing and holding suspected patients has been instituted with international help, and confidence among the nurses has been restored.

But the stigma remains. Her staff had been abandoned by their husbands and shunned by neighbours, Ms Sellu said. One nurse returned home to find her belongings in a suitcase on the pavement. Another looking for a place to rent had to lie to her landlord telling him she was a student.

The impact on the economies of the affected countries – Liberia is reported to be facing 30 per cent deflation - may in the long term cause the most damage. Airlines including British Airways have halted flights despite advice from the World Health Organisation that travel restrictions were not necessary.  Cities have been locked down and placed in quarantine, businesses have closed, and farmers who account for two thirds of the working population have abandoned their fields, threatening food shortages. There are fears that the panic caused by ebola could damage the entire continent’s economic revival.

To be afraid of ebola, a lethal disease with a death rate up to 90 per cent, is understandable. The challenge facing West Africa, and the world, is to respond effectively to the threat whilst vigorously confronting the irrational fears that may otherwise multiply the harms it causes and inflict even more pain, suffering and economic damage than the virus itself.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
Illegal African migrants arrive at the port in the Tunisian town of Zarzis, some 50 kilometres west of the Libyan border after Tunisian fishermen rescued 82 African migrants off the coast of the town aboard a makeshift boat bound for the Italian island of Lampedusa  

Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

Andrew Grice
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own