Written by Josephine Fagan


Ebola – why all the fuss?

As passenger screening extends to Manchester and Birmingham airports and the epidemic continues apace in Africa, Dr Josephine Fagan puts the facts into context.


Why the panic?
The world is witnessing the deadliest outbreak of Ebola ever recorded. The first, in 1976, killed 280 people in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Since then there have been sporadic cases and half a dozen outbreaks with similar death tolls. The current outbreak in West Africa has already claimed more than four and a half thousand lives and, according to the World Health Organisation, there could be up to 10,000 new cases per week within the next two months.

Of course, we’re most likely to encounter Ebola in newspaper headlines and news bulletins. But does that mean it’s not our problem?

Why should we care?

Clearly, the current outbreak poses a significant humanitarian crisis. But why the fuss about Ebola? There are other deadly (and more contagious) diseases, but many of them have effective treatments and vaccines. And there’s the rub… There are no vaccines against Ebola and there is no cure. If the disease is not contained, it has the potential to become a global health threat.

What is Ebola and how is it spread?

Ebola, (like HIV), began as an animal viral disease. Now it affects humans. It is passed on by direct contact with bodily fluids (such as urine, vomit and blood). Symptoms include fever, muscle pain, weakness, rash, sore throat, diarrhoea, vomiting, internal and external bleeding.

Can the spread be limited?

Yes. People in affected areas have been advised to avoid eating bushmeat (fruit bats, a delicacy in parts of Africa, are considered to be the virus’s natural host); they have also been encouraged maintain hygiene and avoid contact with affected individuals (living and dead).

What is the reality for those directly affected by the disease?

Given that mortality rates are 60% to 90%, most Ebola sufferers are condemned to slow, isolated and painful deaths.

Orphaned children of victims are being abandoned for fear of infection.

Local health care providers are overwhelmed. What’s worse, only 3% of the world’s health care professionals live and work in Africa.

Communities are falling apart. Economies are failing. And yet more infectious diseases are preying on the weak and impoverished.

What is being done?

In UK airports, travellers from affected countries are being screened (although it may take three weeks for symptoms to show). NHS guidelines on Ebola have been issued. But such measures will have little real impact.

What’s needed is to stop the disease at source.

Thankfully, international efforts are being made. Britain has pledged to set up a 65-bed treatment centre for infected medical staff in Sierra Leone. Twenty French specialists are to visit Guinea. President Obama plans to send 3,000 troops to build 17 healthcare facilities, mainly in Liberia. Aid agencies are lobbying to lift flight-bans and border closures, especially in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, in order to create humanitarian corridors and so deliver much needed supplies.

But is it enough?

AIDS has already proved a scourge, especially in Africa. If we could turn back time, wouldn’t we use every resource to halt the spread of HIV? Think of all the misery and suffering it’s caused. Ebola has the potential to pose a similar worldwide threat and it demands an international response.

What can we do?

Well, we can’t all jet off to Africa and lend a hand – but we can support those who are doing just that by donating to agencies such the Red Cross, Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders, Save the Children and many more. We can back government aid initiatives (and lobby for more). And we can encourage others to see this problem for what it is, and be part of the solution.

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Written by Josephine Fagan

Josephine works as a doctor in urgent and primary care. She’s also a bit of a globetrotter, is working on her first novel, and loves the colour purple.