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IN THE CANDID CORNER: Ebola: A house on fire

Matthew Farley

IN THE CANDID CORNER: Ebola: A house on fire

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We are prepared to take leadership to provide the kinds of capabilities that only America has . . . that’s what we are doing. – President Barack Obama

The eyes of the world are focused simultaneously on the twin wars against Ebola and ISIS. I was tempted to dub them e-wars since we are essentially dealing with the deadly disease Ebola and the emergence of a kind of extremism that has taken man’s inhumanity to man to a different level.

While social media is being used to educate the world about the ravages of the Ebola virus, it is the same medium through which the face of the Islamic State (of Iraq and Syria) is being projected.

But Ebola is not new. According to the website of Stanford University, the first cases of this virus disease were seen in 1976 southern Sudan and northern Zaire, located 500 miles apart. More cases occurred in Zaire in 1977 and in Sudan in 1979. After these initial outbreaks the virus remained dormant until 1989 when a subtype of the virus caused a scare in Reston, Virginia when four laboratory workers became infected from the cynomolgus monkeys imported from the Philippines. Given the variation or the differences among the subtypes, there is a high suspicion that there are four types of Ebola viruses. In 1995, there was another deadly outbreak in 1995 in Zaire and the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported 20 cases in Gabon (West Africa). The nature of this disease is still shrouded in mystery and it is unknown as to where it lies dormant between outbreaks and how it maintains its survival. There is speculation that other monkeys, bats and insects are reservoirs for the virus.

Global health gurus must answer some questions. Firstly, why has so little been done since the first outbreak almost four decades ago? Why did the first outbreak in Virginia 25 years ago not trigger serious research investigation into the causes, treatment and the development of protocols for healthcare workers including doctors and nurses who remain at high risk of contracting the virus? According to Time magazine, “the lack of innovation when it comes to treatment for Ebola, is largely due to a low financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies. What is emerging is that until now the Ebola disease has not exactly been a top priority”.

But the reality is that we are not starting from scratch. According to the Globe and Mail, Canada has invested in path-breaking research and has spent nearly $7 million since 2002 developing an experimental therapy and vaccine to shield the country from security threats. This has happened even though the virus never turned up on its shores.  

Across the Atlantic, the EU has invested close to 150 million euros in the humanitarian response since August 2014 in both the crisis and the recovery phases. Down under, Australia is dedicating more money, not people, to the fight against Ebola.

In spite of the humanitarian and philanthropic interest shown by strategic nations and partners, the battle rages on at the frontline in West Africa. According to the story of the fight in West Africa is one of deficiencies and shortages. Dr Werner Strahl, who recently visited Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, spoke of one children’s hospital in the entire country and one not even fit enough to deal with patients coming down with fever.

WHO director general Margaret Chan remains optimistic that the outbreak can be controlled. Joanne Liu of Doctors Without Borders likens it to a house on fire. While alluding to need to deploy civilian and military assets with expertise in biohazard containment, she insists that “to put out this fire we need to run into the burning house”.   

• Matthew Farley is a former secondary school principal, chairman of the National Forum on Education and a social commentator.