Human history has seen the steady improvement in people's health and life spans. The advent of penicillin has meant that previously fatal wounds are now survivable, and all manner of life-saving surgeries are possible. Equally, our understanding of viruses has allowed us to develop vaccines that have prevented millions from falling ill. Medical advances have reshaped human society, but we are far from invincible.
The recent outbreak of Ebola in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, makes this especially clear. Originally contracted from infected animals, the virus can spread from person to person and has a worryingly high mortality rate. As it stands there is no vaccine, so treatment involves managing the symptoms of the disease and quarantining sufferers. Over 3,000 people are reported to be infected in the current outbreak and it has already claimed the lives of more than 1,550. Dealing with it quickly and effectively is essential.
A combined effort
According to a recent Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) statement, the current efforts are not proving effective enough. In MSF's words, they are "dangerously inadequate" and organisations and governments need to provide more than money to help combat Ebola. The worst affected countries simply do not have the expertise or enough healthcare workers to deal with an emergency on this scale. The statement calls on the World Health Organisation to lead the international community in providing the necessary support.
This call for coordinated action is echoed by a number of other experts. It will not only depend on establishing a clear chain of command and strategy, but also developing a shared understanding of the scale of the problem. Even the number of sufferers remains unclear, with the UN health agency suggesting that there could be up to four times more cases than are currently reported. Added to these strategic difficulties are a number of other hurdles for health workers in West Africa.
For a start, the risks of working in such close contact with sufferers mean that doctors and nurses must wear protective clothes at all times in order to limit the chance of infection. Not only does this add an additional expense, but hot conditions mean that they have to take regular breaks to remove their protective clothes, further slowing their work. On top of this, many local people still lack trust in modern medical procedures. This has led many to stay away from hospitals for fear of infection, instead turning to traditional healing methods that are usually far less effective.
Dealing with the consequences
The effects of not adequately combating Ebola go far beyond the high death toll of the virus itself. People's mistrust of hospitals has meant that many are now not receiving treatment for a range of other issues, such as malaria or complications during labour. Though it is right that people have a healthy concern about the disease, this panic could lead to thousands of preventable deaths. Even once the outbreak is over, it will be an uphill battle to renew people's trust in health workers and modern medicine.
Equally worrying are the wider political and economic ramifications. The spread of the virus has caused serious unrest, particularly in Liberia, which was already dealing with the aftermath of a devastating civil war. Added to this is the high cost of providing emergency care to so many people and under such difficult conditions. This is money that could have been spent on developing infrastructure and skills that would improve the prospects of the affected populations in the long-term. This paints a worrying picture for the future.
The sad fact is that lack of investment is what has made these countries so vulnerable in the first place. The message from experts is clear: preparation and vigilance are key to averting crises of this kind, and a major part of this preparedness is a well-funded and capable health sector. At the moment, however, the emphasis has to be on establishing a co-ordinated and effective international response to the current outbreak. Humanity has overcome similar challenges in the past, there is no reason why, together, we can't overcome this one as well.
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