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Feldman ’15: Ebola affects everyone

By
Opinions Columnist

Recently, the national media has gone through waves of panic over Ebola hemorrhagic fever. Different hypothetical scenarios have been thrown around about how deadly the disease would be if a crowded metropolitan area became exposed or how rampantly it could spread if a major airport was infected.

Some of these scenarios equate Ebola’s potential toll to the bubonic plague’s horrific effects during the Middle Ages. As Herald Opinions Columnist Walker Mills ’15 wrote in a recent article, however, the chances of these American doomsday scenarios are extremely small. But just because this current outbreak may not devastate American soil does not mean that those who are suffering should be ignored.

One of the largest problems with the American perception of Ebola is how ignorant Americans are of the actual disease. For starters, Ebola is a viral disease. Viruses invade cells and insert a copy of their genetic information, which is integrated into the host cell’s DNA. This allows for a virus to not only infect the cell but to use its machinery to create more of the virus to be sent throughout the body.

With Ebola, the virus ends up in bodily fluids such as saliva and waste products. As of now, the virus is not airborne, so the disease is primarily spread through contact with an infected patient or by healthcare providers improperly handling patients or bodily fluids. While the disease’s transmission may be preventable, it has been contagious enough to infect 13,241 patients since March and deadly enough to have killed 4,950 of those patients, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For Americans, the idea of Ebola spreading here is a nightmare, but for the people of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Ebola is a reality — a reality that Americans have largely ignored. According to Google Trends information, which measures how frequently different topics are searched for on the Internet, the only two peaks in interest were in August and October, which correspond to when Ebola-infected missionaries were transferred to Atlanta and when Thomas Duncan was discovered to be infected in Dallas. In both cases, Americans’ interest depended on their chance of being personally affected.

The United States needs to aid the Ebola-stricken countries for reasons that aren’t self-serving. Yes, by containing the virus and creating a vaccine, the United States would guarantee the safety of its own citizens. But shouldn’t we be just as concerned with the numerous deaths of innocent civilians? These West African countries are being decimated by Ebola. Sierra Leone quarantined one million of its citizens to prevent the spread of the disease. While a quarantine could be helpful, it could also lead to massive starvation for the people living in the quarantined area.

The lack of concern Americans have shown can be attributed to the disease’s origin. Would the United States be more invested if a country’s citizens were threatened by a military organization that also hated America? What if the victims were European or Caucasian? Americans would be much more concerned if the homes of an economic trade partner were being ravaged. Because Ebola is a third-world disease, Americans are much more concerned about their own safety than they are about the people whose lives are actually being threatened.

Ebola isn’t a new disease either. The first Ebola outbreak occurred in 1976 in what was formerly known as Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Had a vaccine been prioritized, we could have allocated enough resources to create one decades ago. A drug wouldn’t have been profitable, however, so private drug companies had no economic motivation to develop a vaccine. While it would have been difficult to test an immunization because Ebola outbreaks have been sporadic, most African patients would not be able to afford a treatment that Americans consider even nominally expensive unless a government were willing to sponsor the medication.

Without a specific Ebola vaccine or treatment, patients are given basic supportive care, such as maintenance of intravenous fluids, nutrients and blood pressure. The primary goal of these measures is basic life support — all providers can do is keep patients alive until their bodies’ immune systems can create their own responses to the disease. This type of treatment requires a significant amount of resources: hospitals, beds, medication and properly trained providers with sufficient protective equipment. While it might not seem overly expensive to receive that treatment in America, it can be difficult to provide for some West African countries that lack adequate health care resources or infrastructure.

A fundamental problem with the inadequate infrastructure is the lack of properly trained medical providers. If providers aren’t adequately trained in using something as simple as personal protective equipment, they are at risk of contracting the disease. The CDC recommends that American health care workers involved in treating Ebola patients first go through repeated training, cover all skin and have an onsite manager to ensure proper protection. Many hospitals in West Africa do not have this luxury.

Without this framework, West African health care workers are contracting the disease and dying at a disproportionate rate. While each death is equally horrible, health care workers are at the forefront of containing the disease. Hospitals are already understaffed. Losing more health care workers just worsens the countries’ abilities to treat the disease. Providers contracting the disease puts patients at further risk. While at a hospital, patients’ immune systems might be weakened by a different disease, so a provider could accidentally spread the disease to extremely susceptible patients. Without properly trained health care workers, this process could create a positive feedback loop of rampant disease transmission.

The United States is very fortunate that Ebola is not an epidemic on its soil. But that doesn’t mean we should be ignoring the disease altogether. The outbreak of Ebola is a symptom of the larger disease of poor health care infrastructure and a lack of resources in many parts of West Africa, as well as other parts of the continent. Rather than wasting our time and resources practically gossiping over a disease, we should use them to provide West African hospitals with more support and training to avoid an outbreak of the next deadly disease.

 

Andrew Feldman ’15 has now written his last column for the semester but can be reached at andrew_feldman@brown.edu before he resumes writing next semester, which will probably be before Americans become aware of the severity of Ebola. 

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One Comment

  1. Ebola is high cantagious and could lead to even hundred of thousands of more deaths world wide, please dont let it happen Im not going to be around to see it i think i would kill myself.

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