There has been a great deal of news (almost all bad) on the epidemic of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in West Africa. Until now, all previous outbreaks have been limited to a few hundred cases. At present, 4,800 cases have been documented in five countries: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal. Over 2,400 deaths have occurred.
Even though the region has large numbers of cases of Malaria and Diarrheal disease (all of which kill more people in a given year than Ebola), this epidemic has caused some nations to grind to an economic halt. This area is, for the most part, desperately poor to begin with and Ebola appears to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
In a desperate effort to identify and isolate new cases, the government of Sierra Leone has undertaken the drastic measure of forbidding people to leave their homes for three days starting September 18th. In other areas, entire communities are under quarantine.
Ebola cruelly affects a disproportionately large number of health workers, the very people most needed in this type of emergency. Over 300 medical personnel have contracted the disease and 150 have died. Dr. Olivet Buck, a German physician, is the latest; she died in Sierra Leone before she could be medically evacuated to her home country.
All this in a country that has 2 doctors for every 100,000 people. Compare that to the U.S., where there are 2.5 physicians for every 1,000 people. The group Doctors Without Borders says Liberia’s capital city needs 1,000 beds for Ebola patients; that’s bad because there are only 240 beds available. We can, therefore, assume that three quarters of the people who have this contagious disease are still on the streets. The question is: Why should we, in a nation thousands of miles away, care?
Despite the best efforts of the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders, Ebola is expected to rage on in West Africa for another 12-18 months, with 20,000 cases predicted. Without coordination of relief efforts, the ability to contain the disease is limited and has been labeled a “failure” to date. Countries are sending supplies and equipment in piecemeal fashion. The U.S., for example, is setting up a 25 bed hospital for its part. Unfortunately, it’s far too little to make a dent in the epidemic.
It’s difficult for a person in a developed country to believe that medical systems, economies, even governments, might fail as a result of a virus. The average U.S. citizen suffers from what we call “Normalcy Bias”. This is the tendency to be believe that, since things have been just fine, everything will always remain so. Normalcy bias was probably a significant factor in the consequences to the U.S. of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918.
Despite this, few homes have gloves and medical masks in their medicine cabinet, even though they would be useful for any outbreak of infectious disease. This is in comparison to Asian countries, the citizens of which oftentimes carry these items on their person. They have no qualms about wearing them in public; indeed, it is considered a sign of social responsibility to do so, especially when one has a cold or flu.
Approximately 10,000 West Africans visit the U.S. every three months, through the hubs of New York, Atlanta, and Houston. With commercial airlines allowing world travel in a day, this deadly disease will one day make an appearance here. Hopefully, our advanced infection prevention protocols will isolate it before it goes community-wide. Given that viruses like Enterovirus68, which has hospitalized hundred of kids in the Midwest and West recently, can travel like wildfire, Ebola could possibly do the same.
There is some good news: High heat, humidity and other requirements for Ebola’s survival make it unlikely to survive for long in temperate climates as seen in the U.S. Having said that, complacent attitudes due to normalcy bias is why epidemics and natural disasters catch most people by surprise. Never panic, but make sure that your medicine cabinet can handle more than just a headache and a runny nose. Being medically prepared is not just a sign of social responsibility; it’s a sign of common sense.
Joe and Amy Alton are the authors of the #1 Amazon Bestseller “The Survival Medicine Handbook“. See their articles in Backwoods Home, Survival Quarterly, and other great magazines. For over 400 articles on medical preparedness, go to their website at www.doomandbloom.net.
The opinions voiced by Joe Alton, M.D., and Amy Alton, A.R.N.P., aka Dr. Bones and Nurse Amy, are their own and are not meant to take the place of seeking medical help from your healthcare provider. The practice of medicine without a license is illegal and punishable by law. Seek modern and standard medical care whenever and wherever it is available.
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