Reactions is a column from Report seeking faculty reactions to news and issues.
Criticism is mounting about the response to Ebola. Assistant Professor of Biology Ben Sadd, who studies infectious diseases, agrees that a different response from the world could have meant a different path for Ebola.
The disease itself is a nasty piece of work within an individual, but from a disease-ecology perspective, Ebola is easier to contain than an airborne pathogen like SARS or a waterborne pathogen like cholera. Ebola can only be passed on through direct contact with bodily fluids of those who are infected – and only when those who are infected are showing symptoms.
What combats contact-driven diseases like Ebola is good health care and a quick response – neither of which initially happened in West Africa, which is why this particular outbreak of Ebola has been larger than others (outbreaks in humans have occurred periodically since the first identification of Ebola in 1976). Yes, the disease was mistaken for other illnesses at first, but when officials did realize it was Ebola, they should have responded sooner. Governments – including the United States – should have come in and nipped the disease in the bud.
Look at Ebola’s “R naught” – an estimate of the number of new infections of a disease that could occur from a single original infection dropped into a crowd of susceptible people. HIV has an estimated R naught of four; measles has a number above 10. Ebola’s R naught factor is only two. Of course, if left alone, it will spread uncontrollably, but this relatively low number and route of transmission mean containment is certainly achievable.
Not much good can be said about Ebola. When symptoms start to show, it can take a person down quickly. However, since a person is only contagious when symptoms show, that means the time it can be contracted by another person is limited.
When you have good health care and containment practices, the chances of Ebola spreading are much lower. Fewer people come into contact with the disease, and tracing of a person’s contacts means that at-risk people can be monitored. The Centers for Disease Control in the United States is a strong factor in keeping this disease, and others, at bay here. They have isolation units at airports, and are screening those who come into the country for symptoms, along with risk-assessment questionnaires for travellers from affected regions. Although the risk for travellers is extremely low. They are also active in tracking the people who may have come into contact with the disease. I think we may see further isolated “imported” cases of Ebola here and there in the United States, but the quality of monitoring and containment will prevent any further spread.
It is well known that many areas of West Africa do not have good health care infrastructure. Even worse, when health care workers first heard of the disease, many left the area instead of staying to help contain it. Governments around the world should have taken steps not only to contain the disease, but also to educate the people who are seeing the outbreak. Confusion and fear have caused villages to turn on health care workers, thinking they are responsible for the disease. Or worse, they believe the disease to be hoax that can be ignored.
There are many myths flying around about Ebola. The fruit bats – which are likely the primary source of the disease – do not live in the United States. And with screening measures in place, contact with an infectious person is improbable. So, Ebola will not just pop up randomly in your neighborhood from out of nowhere.
Ebola frightens people, but a little knowledge of contagious diseases goes a long way. Education, infrastructure and fast action are key. While Ebola will not go away overnight, it is unlikely to spread on our doorsteps. So, as individuals in the U.S., we should not be concerned. As global citizens, however, we can question why the response of the world’s governments was not quicker in West Africa. However, it seems the world is now on board, and control measures should contain the disease.