The international reaction to this year’s Ebola outbreak followed a similar pattern to previous deadly transmittable diseases. Initially downplaying or ignoring the problem eventually shifts into media overreaction and fear for the worst. The international community has been slow in such instances to take notice unless the death count reaches an alarmingly high number, or, more commonly, the chance that it could spread abroad and affect anyone becomes a possibility. Another typical pitfall is that the disease is viewed as a singularity, rather than a cause of a combination of other factors. Lack of education and awareness; an inadequate response from institutions; poor access to medical and basic services; all clash to create an environment where the spread of a virus can happen quickly. Above all, the reaction to an outbreak usually seeks to address the potential effects close to home while glossing over the broader issue.
What is Ebola? Ebola is an infectious disease with an 80-90% mortality rate first documented in 1976. The current iteration has killed over a thousand and infected twice as many, the vast majority of cases recorded in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, though several cases have also been reported in Nigeria. It is thought to be spread through the consumption of carrier fruit bats and other bushmeat and at present has no known cure or treatment. The two American missionaries who contracted the virus in West Africa attracted significant media attention upon being quarantined in US medical facilities in Atlanta. The disease is not easily transmitted under monitored conditions, but it is can be contagious upon contact with infected blood or other bodily fluids.
The outbreak occurring at present is not the first, but it is the largest and deadliest Ebola outbreak on record. Comparatively, Ebola is miniscule in fatalities and scope, but as it kills more directly than other diseases and because a lack of information on treatment has persisted the outbreak has stirred many fears. Because of passengers feared to carry the disease abroad, border points have been closed in Liberia and flights have been limited in West Africa. Furthermore, “if it recedes, it does not mean it is not present. You will see more outbreaks. It will be recurrent,” declares Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at CSIS. The greater problem is not containing the newest outbreak, which will be eventually accomplished, but rather addressing the issue at its source so that we are better equipped to handle the next virus outbreak, Ebola or otherwise.
Misunderstanding of the disease has resulted in worsening the problem. In Liberia, young men with clubs attacked a medical facility allowing 17 to escape. Superstition, government mistrust, cultural practices, and a lack of education have underlined and encouraged the transmission of Ebola. Many West Africans disbelieve the virus exists and will likely continue consuming bushmeat, thus increasing the chances of greater transmission. Addressing the roots of the cause such as the extremely low socioeconomic conditions that allow for such a disease to spread is the best long-term solution to preventing such problems in the first place.
Reacting to Ebola and other deadly transmittable diseases only if there is a chance it will affect one’s home country only further serves to isolate much needed attention and aid. On one hand ignoring a virus like Ebola will definitely worsen the problem, but treating it like an apocalyptic disaster before getting all the facts can be just as deleterious. Both domestically and internationally, people should familiarize themselves with the problem itself, but also the wider issues at hand. Treating Ebola in a vacuum and ignoring the socioeconomic, cultural, and political antecedents that allow for the setting for Ebola to spread is shortsighted. A comprehensive effort to assist both those affected and those under threat of infection should be undertaken, and a long-term approach to educating West Africans and dispelling myths on disease should help counter the obstacles that have slowed aid thus far.