Has International Inertia Worsened the Ebola Epidemic?


by Claire-Louise Murray, contributor

Has the spread of Ebola been accelerated by an “extremely slow” international response?

The first known outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease [EVD] occurred in 1976 in Sudan and simultaneously in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Ebola is difficult to diagnose as it shares early symptoms with a number of illnesses such as malaria, meningitis or cholera. However, an infected individual may display more severe symptoms such as fever, intense weakness and in some cases internal and external bleeding.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak has proved to be the deadliest outbreak in the history of the disease, with the current mortality rate standing at approximately 70%. The recent Ebola epidemic originated in Guinea, West Africa, and was first reported to the World Health Organisation [WHO] on the 22nd of March this year.

Due to Guinea’s weak public health system and lack of internal support, its population was in need of external support at the onset of the crisis. However, WHO only declared a Public Health Emergency and International Concern [PHEIC] in August 2014. Thus, the crisis of the EVD only became international once it had crossed Guinea’s border and entered Liberia.

Professor Ana Ayala of Georgetown University stated that “if you can prevent an outbreak or even react from the very beginning, fewer people will die.” Guinea’s inability to act, given its poor health service, should have made the issue of the EVD an international issue in March, when it was first reported, to ensure the containment and control of Ebola in countries which do not have the capacity or facilities to independently deal with the outbreak.

International action post-PHEIC has been described as “extremely slow and not up to the needed scale to appropriately contain the disease,” according to Estrella Lasry of Médecins Sans Frontières. EVD has since spread to Mali, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nigeria and Senegal have now been declared Ebola-free after six weeks of no new cases.

Meanwhile, the first Western case was in Spain, and resulted in the death of Teresa Romero aged 44. The first case diagnosed on US soil, Thomas Duncan, also died after travelling from Liberia. False alarms have been also raised in France, and suspected cases are yet to be certified in Australia, the Czech Republic and Macedonia.

To date, over 3,800 people in West Africa have died as a result of the 2014 Ebola outbreak. Western governments have been heavily criticised for not demonstrating solidarity and intervening at an earlier stage.

Jim Kim, the president of the World Bank, stated that the international community has “failed miserably.” Kim admitted to having arguments with WHO over the financial costs of Ebola. WHO stated that, financially, EVD could result in costs of up to $33 billion.

Dr. Sina Bavari of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases recognised the inertia, in terms of funding and vaccine development, of large pharmaceutical companies and the Western governments. He stated: “I don’t see why anybody except the U.S. government would get involved in developing these kinds of countermeasures […] There is no market in it.”

While this lack of profitability has resulted in a negligent approach to the containment and prevention of the EVD, WHO has reported that vaccine trials could begin in West Africa in January 2015. However, the Christian Science Monitor reported that the WHO should proceed with caution with an experimental drug, as Africa is a continent which has a “history of being on the receiving end of Western medicines.”

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