The World Health Organization has warned that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was spiralling out of control and could cause catastrophic loss of life and severe economic dislocation.
The outbreak was “moving faster than our efforts to control it,” said WHO chief Margaret Chan.
“It is taking place in areas with fluid population movements over porous borders, and it has demonstrated its ability to spread via air travel, contrary to what has been seen in past outbreaks,” Ms. Chan added.
It is a warning that needs to be heeded, and heeded now. The Ebola virus has killed more than 700 people since it broke out in Guinea last March. Among its victims are foreign medical workers who were infected by their patients.
It took only four decades for Ebola to achieve notoriety as a deadly virus. In 1976, the first outbreaks of the disease were recorded in Zaire and Sudan. Scientists named it after the river in the region where it originated.
Incredibly, the Philippines is part of Ebola history. In 1989, scientists in Reston, Virginia, found that macaque monkeys imported from the Philippines were infected with a strain of the Ebola virus.
A year later, four humans who had come in close contact with the macaques developed Ebola antibodies, but not the symptoms.
The disease disappeared from the limelight only to resurface in 2008, when it was detected in five workers at a pig farm in the Philippines. Again, the humans had none of the virus’ symptoms and survived. But it opened a worrisome chapter in Ebola lore because it was the first time the virus was detected in pigs.
Today, Ebola has become a full-blown health menace that needs a global response.
The virus has been profiled as a killer that can inflict an agonizing death in just days. It first torments its victim with high fever, excruciating muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhea and delivers the final blow with unstoppable bleeding.
Almost half of Ebola patients eventually succumb to the disease.
Epidemiologists agree that the disease is relatively easy to control, since it is not airborne. So why is it thriving in West Africa? The answer could be more sociological than pathological. An Agence France Presse report has suggested that “in a country where remote communities are deeply superstitious of western medicine and often rely on the wisdom of witch doctors, a variety of damaging myths have built up around Ebola. “
“Among the most worrisome is the widespread belief that Ebola is a western conspiracy or doesn’t exist at all. Another is that entering an Ebola treatment center is accepting a death sentence,” AFP noted.
The fear that the virus will spread outside Western Africa has raised a strong call for global vigilance. Fortunately, the worldwide outbreak of SARS in 2003 and the recurring avian flu epidemic have kept health authorities on heightened alert.
They must not relax their guard. More than 1 billion people ride the plane to their destinations every year. One of them could be an Ebola host.
In 1918, the Spanish influenza killed 50 million people in what has been called the “Mother of All Pandemics.” The virus spread globally at a time when commercial air travel had not yet taken off.
Last week, Philippine health authorities said they are closely monitoring a group of Filipino workers who returned from Sierra Leone, one of the West African countries struggling with an Ebola outbreak. Not one of them was found to have the virus’ symptoms.
We need to prevent the virus from getting in, because we do not have the specialized facilities to handle Ebola cases. An American doctor who was infected with Ebola in West Africa was transferred to a hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, and confined in an isolation ward where the air is filtered, and the medical staff wore hazmat suits.
Our hospitals are nowhere that sophisticated. That means we could be at Ebola’s mercy once it arrives on our shores.