Ebola: Fight the disease, not the victims

SHARE Ebola: Fight the disease, not the victims

The spread of the deadly Ebola virus in Africa is a global health emergency. Countries around the world must join together to mobilize the resources, build the isolation units, supply the needed medicine, doctors, nurses and support personnel needed to isolate and treat those afflicted, track down and monitor those who might have been in contact, and stop the epidemic.

The toll of the victims of the epidemic — centered in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone — is rising. The World Health Organization now reports over 7,400 confirmed or likely cases, and 3,431 deaths. On Sept. 23, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that without a more robust response, as many as 1.4 million cases could erupt in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January 20.

The virus is deadly, but not particularly infectious. It spreads only from direct contact from the bodily fluids — sweat, blood, vomit — of someone infected after the fever and other symptoms have occurred. Sadly, the incubation period — the time after someone is infected but before symptoms appear — lasts a week and sometimes as long as three weeks. People can travel long distances unaware that they are carrying the disease. This poses a challenge for health officials who must make the public aware so that they are cautious, without spreading panic. It also means that the entire world has a stake in countering this lethal epidemic.

The disease can be stopped. An American victim, undiagnosed, carried the disease into crowded Lagos, Nigeria. More people live in Lagos than in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone combined. A vigorous response — investigating all in contact with the patient, monitoring them, and isolating those who showed symptoms — cleared the virus with only eight deaths. Nigeria had the public health and governmental capacity to respond. But in West Africa, civil wars and chronic poverty have disrupted already meager local health systems. Doctors are scarce; health workers had no experience with the disease.

As Nigeria shows, we need mobilization, not panic, particularly with the chilling news that a Liberian, Thomas E. Duncan, tested positive for the disease in Dallas, the first case diagnosed in this country.

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