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Ebola continues to spread just slightly slower than fear

The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa continues to spread. With over 3,000 cases and 1,552 reported deaths (as of August 31, 2014), the seriousness of the outbreak cannot be ignored. While Ebola Zaire is the one causing this outbreak, additional cases of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo are raising fears that the contagion is spreading, even as scientists have told us that the Ebola in DRC is different than the one in West Africa. Those fears are the worst enemy to the people in Africa, even more than the virus itself.

Here is a story from the Washington Post from today:

“The dreaded Ebola virus came to the children’s hospital [in Freetown, Sierra Leone] in the form of a 4-year-old boy.

His diagnosis became clear three days after he was admitted. The Ola During hospital — the nation’s only pediatric center — was forced to close its steel gates. Fear swelled. The boy died. The 30 doctors and nurses who had contact with him were placed in quarantine, forced to nervously wait out the 21 days it can take for the virus to emerge. And remaining staff so far have refused to return to work.”

From these many thousands of miles away, it would be easy to just shake your head and say that the hospital staff’s actions are irresponsible. But are they? After all, everyone knows that Ebola is certain death. Even my wife, who has played with it in the lab, said that she would think twice before putting on a suit and working in a ward with patients infected with Ebola. Me too. So I don’t blame the workers there at all, especially if they’re lacking the resources to deal with a full-fledged epidemic of one of the deadliest viruses in life.

The worst thing about the epidemic is that the fear over the virus is getting out of control and people in the position to make decisions are allowing fear to take over and guide their decisions. Even everyday people are being run-over with fear:

“And so now [Ebola] is headed to Freetown, where the streets hum with low-level panic. People long ago stopped shaking hands. Hugs are unheard of. Plastic buckets filled with a diluted chlorine solution are posted outside many businesses to encourage hand-washing.”

It will not be long until high-level panic comes, and then what? Well, past epidemics have shown that fear and panic will lead to irrational acts of all kinds. Someone gets the flu and they’re going to be quarantined, or worse. Hospitals will shut down on the rumor of one patient being there. People who believe that Ebola is a manufactured virus will not accept foreign aid out of fear of even more “bad outcomes” from allowing “The West” to come to their aid. (Because there are those out there who have made some very outlandish claims about the origins of Ebola and HIV, and how Africa has become a testing ground for said viruses.)

It’s all going to come together, and it’s not going to be pretty.

Humanity has all the tools necessary to stop Ebola in its tracks right now. We have containment units and personal protective equipment. We have disinfectants. We know how it’s transmitted and we know how it isn’t. We know, we know, we know… And still, we have this enormous mind-block that doesn’t allow us to go with what works and instead pushes us into the darkness of what doesn’t work.

(The featured image came from the Public Health Image Library:

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

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