There has been a great deal of news on the epidemic of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in West Africa. Until now, all previous outbreaks have been limited to a few hundred cases. At present, 4,800 cases have been documented in five countries: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal. Over 2,400 deaths have occurred.
Even though the region has large numbers of cases of malaria and diarrheal disease, all of which kill more people in a given year than Ebola, this epidemic has caused some nations to grind to an economic halt. This area is, for the most part, desperately poor to begin with and Ebola appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In a desperate effort to identify and isolate new cases, the government of Sierra Leone has undertaken the drastic measure of forbidding people to leave their homes for three days, which started on Sept. 18. In other areas, entire communities are under quarantine.
Ebola cruelly affects a disproportionately large number of health workers. More than 300 medical personnel have contracted the disease and 150 have died. The group Doctors Without Borders says Liberia’s capital city needs 1,000 beds for Ebola patients; that’s bad because there are only 240 beds available. We can, therefore, assume that three quarters of the people who have this contagious disease are still on the streets.
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Despite the best efforts of the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders, Ebola is expected to rage on in West Africa for another 12 months to 18 months, with 20,000 cases predicted. Without coordination of relief efforts, the ability to contain the disease is limited and has been labeled a failure to date. Countries are sending supplies and equipment in piecemeal fashion. The United States, for example, is setting up a 25-bed hospital for its part. Unfortunately, it’s far too little to make a dent in the epidemic.
Few homes have gloves and medical masks in their medicine cabinet, even though they would be useful for any outbreak of infectious disease. This is in comparison to Asian countries, the citizens of which oftentimes carry these items with them. They have no qualms about wearing them in public; indeed, it is considered a sign of social responsibility to do so, especially when one has a cold or flu.
High heat, humidity and other requirements for Ebola’s survival make it unlikely to survive for long in temperate climates as seen in the United States. Never panic, but make sure that your medicine cabinet can handle more than just a headache and a runny nose. Being medically prepared is not just a sign of social responsibility; it’s a sign of common sense.
Joseph B. Alton, M.D., Weston