Ebola is not just a health crisis. It has unpicked the fabric of whole societies. Yet the devastation the disease has caused is still barely understood beyond the borders of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. In Liberia, the worst-hit country, most hospitals are shut, all schools have been closed, businesses have shut up shop, and nearly a year’s harvest has been lost. The country’s Information Minister said last month that Ebola could lead to the collapse of three whole states.
Yet the threat that Ebola poses to the UK, to Europe and the United States and other developed countries, remains very low.
Despite the disproportionate amount of newspaper ink devoted to Western victims, we can be thankful that our 21st-century healthcare systems and infection control expertise mean that we are fully equipped to quarantine any cases of a virus which can only be passed on through bodily fluids. We could nip an outbreak in the bud.
What the catastrophe has exposed is how vital modern health systems are.
The speed with which the crisis has escalated is unprecedented. An outbreak which began in a small Guinean village was able to spread, via the transport hub at Gueckedou, to neighbouring states. Our modern interconnectedness has enabled it to be carried by road to Senegal, and by aeroplane to Nigeria, 1,600 miles away. But the disease has, thankfully, been contained in both of those countries.
See the Ebola outbreak mapped
See the Ebola outbreak mapped
1/7 25 March 2014
This outbreak of the Ebola virus first emerged in the Guéckédou region of Guinea, at a crossroads with both Liberia and Sierra Leone
2/7 31 March
On 31 March the WHO confirmed the outbreak was now international, spreading first into Liberia's northern-most Lofa region
3/7 27 May
The virus spread to Sierra Leone at the end of May - just as agencies were hoping the worst was over
4/7 27 July
In Sierra Leone the virus boomed, and then it spread to Nigeria when the Liberian diplomat Patrick Sawyer flew from Monrovia to Lagos
5/7 9 August
The Nigeria cases sparked fears around the world, and there have now been deaths in Spain and Saudi Arabia involving people who had travelled to West Africa. The numbers of cases continue to rise
6/7 17-20 September
In mid-September, Senegal confirmed its first case linked to the Ebola outbreak, a development the WHO described as a top priority emergency. Numbers of cases continued to grow exponentially in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, as experts warned they could number one million by January if not contained
7/7 8 October
Two cases of Ebola have now been reported in the US and Europe - the first times the virus has been contracted among health workers outside Africa
Border checks, flight bans and public information: much has already been done to protect people outside a three-countryarea known as “the Ebola zone”. Not nearly enough has yet been done to protect those within it.
Those people are at risk not only from Ebola, but from more common diseases – malaria, pneumonia, diarrhoea – which will run rampant because hospitals and clinics have shut down.
International efforts to save lives have increased. Three thousand US troops will soon be operating in the region, Cuba has sent hundreds of doctors, the UK has deployed engineers and NHS professionals. All this will help. But what is needed is nothing short of the wholesale replacement of three entire healthcare systems. Only the military is capable of such a feat. Others should follow the US example.
Meanwhile the World Health Organisation has fast-tracked the testing and manufacture of two experimental vaccines, as well as experimental drugs. But vaccines will not reach the affected populations until the beginning of 2015, and even then on a small scale. By that time there could be more than a million people infected.Reuse content