WHO's Ebola Response Team and Centre of Disease Control, Atlanta predict that more than a million people are likely to be dead from ebola by January 2015. These are indeed grim figures and far worse than the 10 thousand dead that WHO had estimated only a month earlier while planning its response. While the public health systems in the three most affected states – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – are near collapse, the global response to the epidemic has been disastrously inadequate.
It is not that ebola itself has undergone any change. It is the response to ebola that has failed and is creating this disaster. Experts predict that unless emergency measures are taken, not only will ebola kill very large numbers, it is also likely to become endemic in Africa.
A quick look at the figures. The number of patients are doubling every 2-4 weeks in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, showing clearly that it is a still rapidly expanding epidemic. The cases reported are also gross underestimates – the actual numbers are at least 2-3 times higher. The CDC calculations show that if action is taken immediately, then the figures of those infected would reach a high of about 3,500 cases per day, start dropping by December, and be nearly zero by end January, next year. If we delay, the intervention by a just month, the figures would rise to 10,000 per day and would take much longer to brought under control. If the intervention is delayed by 2 months, the figures of those infected daily would rise to about 26,000 per day and continue to rise exponentially for quite some time thereafter. With 70% mortality, we are looking at nearly 20,000 dead per day from ebola, a frightening figure. As of now, this is not simply a worst case scenario but a very possible one, as the world seems more concerned with other issues than controlling ebola in some poor West African countries.
The apathy to ebola in West Africa can be seen from the following. It took more than 2 months to identify the disease itself, and then another 5 months before WHO – in August 8, 2014 declared it a “public health emergency of international concern.” Even after 9 months, the disease is still expanding -- both in numbers and spreading to new areas.
Image Courtesy: who.int
Ebola has no known cure or vaccines. What we have are very limited stocks of experimental ones that cannot control the disease once it is in epidemic mode. The big pharma's apathy to diseases that affect the poor has seen to that. Despite this, ebola is not difficult to control as it infects only through contact with bodily secretions. Measures such as isolating the patients in Ebola Treatment Units, with health personnel there who are adequately equipped, controlling the burial of the dead and providing education to the people can break the back of the epidemic.
Why did this 25th occurrence of ebola then generate such a disaster? There are two reasons for this. One is the countries themselves – though they have enormous mineral resources, they are very near the bottom of the UN's Human Development Index. They suffer from the resource curse: they fall prey to the rich and powerful countries and their corporations because of their mineral wealth. They are also countries the worst affected by the neoliberal globalisation in which all public expenditure including public health systems have been cut down drastically. These countries have been destroyed earlier by colonial loot, and then the civil wars that were instigated by global capital to secure their mineral wealth. Remember blood diamonds from Sierra Leone and Charles Taylor's gift of one to Naomi Campbell? While Charles Taylor, the then President of Liberia, was charged with war crimes for trading in blood diamonds, De Beers the diamond monopoly emerged unscathed, in spite of benefitting from the same trade.
Map Showing Ebola Outbreak as on 16th September, 2014
Image Courtesy: who.int
The second is WHO, whose budget for emergency response has been cut by more than 50% in the last year alone. Moreover, 80% of the existing WHO budget is in donor designated programs and cannot be used for any other purpose. Shamefully, WHO's entire budget of 4 billion dollars is less by 2 billion from that of Centre of Disease Control, US, which has a budget of 6 billion dollars.
The response of the much of the globe is one of complete apathy. The US President Barak Obama talked about ebola in a Press Conference in Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, on September 16, 2014 and the danger it poses to the security of the United States. He then committed 3,000 military personnel for the containment of ebola, as if the disease needed to be controlled by bombing in the same way that the US is waging its wars against so-called terrorists. Cuba, in contrast is sending 60 doctors, 105 nurses and other health staff to Sierra Leone, the largest contingent of health personnel committed by any country. World Health Organization director general Margaret Chan welcomed the Cuban aid and said, "Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission, human resources are clearly our most important need."
The time is running out on the world. Black death like conditions are already emerging in West Africa. If we do not take immediate action, worse may follow, not only in West Africa but in other parts of the world as well.
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author's personal views, and do not necessarily represent the views of Newsclick