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

Share

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Recruitment Genius: General Factory Operatives

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: Every privatised corner of the NHS would be taken back into public ownership

Philip Pullman
 

Errors & Omissions: Magna Carta, sexing bishops and ministerial aides

John Rentoul
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links