By: Luke Gould
Local governments and the international community are struggling to control an outbreak of the highly contagious Ebola virus, which has taken lives of 961 individuals in the West African nations of Liberia, Sierra , Guinea and recently Nigeria.
International organizations, spearhead by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), have been hard at work providing assistance on the ground and coordinating the efforts of regional and local governments. Despite their efforts, the outbreak has become the largest in recorded history. International organizations are now renewing efforts to get the situation under control.
The degree of the outbreak is due, in part, to local conditions. The infrastructure – hospitals, roads, ambulances, trained medical personal, etc. – simply lacks the capacity to deal with the magnitude of this outbreak. Local healthcare systems are being overwhelmed.
To make matters worse, superstition also contributes to high infection and death rates. Many local inhabitants are fearful of medical aid workers, who seem to bring the disease wherever they go. Medical workers are often required to use bio-medical suits due to the highly infectious nature of the disease. A common view of many West Africans is that Ebola is not a disease, but a “curse”. This drives scores of the sick to avoid medical attention altogether. Instead, they return home and seek help from family and traditional medicines.
The scale of the outbreak can also be attributed to the ineffective initial response by the international community. Some, like Ken Isaacs of the missionary organization, Samaritans Purse, have even stepped forth and called the preliminary response a “failure”. “The Ebola crisis we are now facing is not a surprise to us at Samaritan’s Purse, but it took two Americans getting the disease in order for the international community and the United States to take serious notice of the largest outbreak of the disease in history,” said Isaacs, referring to the two American members of his organization that are currently being treated for the disease.
Accusations of failure came during renewed efforts to combat the virus. In a news release on July 31, Director-General Dr. Margret Chan of the WHO along with three respective head of states – Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia – announced a $100 million plan to combat the disease. “The scale of the Ebola outbreak, and the persistent threat it poses, requires WHO and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone to take the response to a new level, and this will require increased resources, in-country medical expertise, regional preparedness and coordination,” says Dr. Chan.
In a statement released Friday, August 8th the WHO declared the situation to be a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. According to the WHO “a coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop and reverse the international spread of Ebola.”
These expanded and renewed efforts emerge amid fear of Ebola spreading in heavily populated Nigeria. There is even some fear that the virus could get out of hand and spread to other parts of the world. The WHO, however, hopes that renewed efforts can bring the outbreak under control in 3-6 months.
The initial slow response is, unfortunately, typical of events requiring international assistance. The WHO and other agencies do not have the material resources or man power to handle this outbreak. There is no single authority with the power to deal effectively with Ebola. Instead there is a network of different players trying to work in unison to solve the problem. The coordination required between local governments, regional governments, the WHO and other organizations is a complex and difficult process.
From a certain viewpoint, the revitalized efforts of the WHO are commendable. On the other hand, however, the circumstances that prompted this response should be noted. It took the infection of two Americans, the spread of the virus to Nigeria, and an underlying fear of Ebola’s potential to spread out of Africa to motivate this response. Perhaps, instead of commending these new plans, we should be questioning the effectiveness of international institutions and an international community that waits until westerners are in danger to tackle problems of human suffering with the full tenacity, coordination and resources that should have been used since the beginning.
Photo Courtesy of SPS Australia