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Trends & Times

Beyond The Epidemic: Why You Should (Still) Care About Ebola and West Africa

In Banjol, Liberia, neighbors of an Ebola victim watch medical workers carry away his body.
Dominique Faget
/
AFP/Getty Images
In Banjol, Liberia, neighbors of an Ebola victim watch medical workers carry away his body.

Since March of 2014, Ebola has claimed the lives of more than 8,600 people and sickened more than 21,000. Fortunately, according to the latest World Health Organization data, new transmissions are on the decline in Guniea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.

Sound Medicine’s parent station WFYI and the Indianapolis Star hosted a discussion about Ebola with disaster medicine and bioethics experts, Liberian-Americans, and other concerned members of our community. The big takeaway: Our reaction to the epidemic will have a profound effect on Ebola stricken-nations, and the world.

Each panelist shared his or her perspective about why we should still care about Ebola.

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Patience Gbor, founder, African Ebola Project

Children orphaned by Ebola and adult survivors are in desperate need of help.

Liberian-American Patience Gbor lost 30 family members to Ebola. She says there’s need for support to help survivors put their lives back together.

The virus has left a multitude of children without parents. According to the World Health Organization, there were 30,000 children orphaned by Ebola at the end of 2014. “They need caretakers, food, clothes, shoes, and books to be able to go back to school,” says Gbor.

Some adult survivors are also in a desperate situation, she says: “Ebola survivors are now going back to the Ebola center where they were treated to find refuge because their families are afraid of contracting Ebola themselves. These people have been abandoned by their families with no one to turn to.”

Gbor has founded the  African Ebola Project to raise funds to send doctors, nurses and medical supplies to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

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Dr. Josh Mugele, Disaster Medicine Specialist

Health care systems in these countries are still vulnerable. We need to help them so that they are prepared for when the next epidemic hits.

Josh Mugele says the international aid response has improved capacity at West African hospitals. But if international support ends after the epidemic does, he expects supplies and staffing to return to previous levels of scarcity.

“Liberia is a nation still recovering from a fifteen year-long civil war. It’s one of the poorest nations in the world,” he says. “There's a severe lack of supplies, there's crumbling infrastructure and there’s always shortages of doctors and nurses and gloves and medicines there.”

Ebola has killed doctors and nurses disproportionately, because it spreads through contact with bodily fluids.

Mugele was working with staff at JFK Hospital in Liberia’s capital, Monrovia, when the first Ebola patients arrived. Part of the reason the virus was so difficult to contain was the lack of basic supplies, like rubber gloves and soap. For example, “one nurse told me she had a limit of five pairs of gloves she could use each day,” Mugele remembers. “So she had to decide which patients to use gloves on and which not to use gloves on.”

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Chad Priest, Public Health Specialist

We should care because there’s a great risk to our nation and the world.

Priest worked with Mugele in Liberia. He sees a risk that goes well beyond disease control.

"This is a major geopolitical strategic risk. Where we take the fight against disease, where we take the fight against injustice,” Priest says, “that's what keeps us safe here."

Priest says deaths directly from Ebola are “just the tip of the iceberg” for Liberia. Liberia is at a risk of being destabilized by the after effects of the disease, and is facing what could be potentially a horrific famine, not because of a crop shortage, but because the lack of interaction between people at the height of the epidemic had a crushing effect on the country’s economy. There were fewer people bringing goods to market, and inflation skyrocketed.

In a country whose democracy is only ten years old, and is still recovering from a civil war, Ebola also poses the threat of political instability. President Ellen Sirleaf delayed elections twice and was criticized for inappropriate use of quarantine.

How does this situation pose a risk to the United States? For one, Liberia’s continued vulnerability to disease makes the whole world vulnerable to new epidemics. “When we ignore countries that do not have a public health infrastructure, it should not surprise us that diseases come from these places,” Priest says. He also points out that nations without functional governments, like Afghanistan, become risky places. “A way to prevent terrorism is to insure that there are no failed states.”

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Dr. Eric Meslin, Director of the Indiana University Center for Bioethics

We should care because it makes economic sense.

He says while there are profound ethical and humanitarian reasons to care, there are also pressing practical reasons to keep Ebola on the national agenda, and to continue to work to stop the spread of Ebola.

“Everyone knows that it's much more cost-effective to prevent than to it is to treat under emergency conditions,” Meslin says. “Some of the Ebola patients, depending on how you do the math, have cost upwards of half a million dollars.”

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