Healthcare / National Security

The Ebola Crisis: An Epidemic with Global Implications

Spiraling out of Control

Although Ebola has periodically caused serious localized damage in Africa since it was identified in 1976, the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Western Africa has been the deadliest in history. As of July, approximately 1,000 cases of Ebola have been recorded since February, resulting in over 650 deaths in West Africa. Unfortunately, the end to this epidemic is nowhere in sight; rather, it is threatening to overwhelm local and international efforts to curb the deadly virus.

There are currently no vaccines or cures available to treat Ebola, which currently has a mortality rate between 50 and 90 percent. The disease is extremely difficult to identify in the early stages of its progression, since it incubates in the body for 2-21 days. Then, the patient exhibits common flu-like symptoms – including fever, diarrhea, and vomiting – before spiraling uncontrollably into lethal hemorrhagic bleeding and eventual death.

Although Canadian researchers have shown that Ebola can be spread through the air between species, humans generally become infected when they come into contact with the blood, secretions, and bodily fluids of infected humans, primates, pigs, or bats. Consequently, Ebola epidemics are generally localized, allowing for international aid teams such as WHO and Médicins Sans Frontières to quarantine areas to limit outbreaks.

In addition to being the largest outbreak in history, the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa is extremely concerning for a few reasons. First, none of the affected countries have sufficient medical infrastructure to deal with the epidemic at hand. For example, Sierra Leone spent a pitiful $13 per capita on healthcare last year.

Second, there are widespread rumors circulating in affected areas that prevent Western trained physicians from helping the sick. Some people do not believe that Ebola is a real disease. Also, since the local people do not understand that a body can be contagious even after death, many individuals contract the disease during burial procedures. In addition, some local leaders have told their constituencies that the disease is caused by “white people” experimenting on Africans. Others believe the disease is “divine retribution” for past sins or that the disease can only be cured by a “witch doctor.” As a result, many international teams have faced problems just gaining access to Ebola patients, and some groups have been stoned for pursuing their medical missions.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, this is the first time that the disease has emerged out of the rural jungles of Central Africa, crossed national borders, and has been found in urban areas – including Conakry, the capital of Guinea. There has also been a case of Ebola in Lagos, one of the most populated cities in West Africa with 21 million people. Ebola is quickly spiraling out of control, and we can only hope that it doesn’t become a global crisis.

The Global Implications of Ebola

While experts indicate that it is unlikely that Ebola will become a worldwide crisis, it is important to recognize the threat it poses globally. Although it is worrisome that Ebola can be transmitted via air, the disease is generally spread among humans via direct contact and proximity to an Ebola patient. In the past, this fact reassured experts that Ebola would be contained in rural Africa, but Ebola’s steady trek to Conakry and Lagos, which have international airports, raise global safety concerns. Although various African countries are trying to take precautions by checking the temperatures of travelers entering and exiting their countries, Ebola’s incubation period of up to a few weeks allows carriers to travel long distances before exhibiting signs of sickness. Consequently, the danger of Ebola spreading out of Africa is a real possibility.

Another worrying scenario, though very unlikely, is the threat of terrorists using Ebola as a weapon of mass destruction. The CDC classifies Ebola as a Category A Bioterrorism Agent/Disease, alongside other dangerous diseases such as anthrax and smallpox. Fortunately, experts believe the threat of weaponized Ebola or other Category A Diseases are extremely low since diseases are usually difficult to prepare, store, and unleash.

Nonetheless, the world must be prepared for the spread of dangerous diseases, whether intentionally or otherwise. In an increasingly globalized world, diseases such as Ebola, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), and the Chinese Avian Flu (H7N9) have a real chance of wreaking havoc. Therefore, there must be international agreement to create global protocols on how to control the spread of dangerous diseases. First, we must train locals on early identification of various dangerous diseases. Second, countries should share information on how diseases are being spread, emerging patterns of outbreaks, and the remote possibility of any bioterrorist activity. Third, there must be coordinated international efforts to create treatments or cures for these dangerous diseases. Only by working together can these threats to humanity be stopped effectively, without the loss of unnecessary innocent lives.