Heard of Ebola yet?

Zafar Ullah, Medicine (MBBS) at Kyber Medical College Peshawar, Pakistan, 3rd Year

With an outbreak lurking about, who hasn’t heard of Ebola. Currently it is one of our world’s deadliest diseases, being highly infectious with no known cure. It starts with a fever and ends in death.

The Ebola virus first appeared in 1976 and ever since, sporadic outbreaks have occurred while the latest has caused tremendous damage and is perniciously spreading amongst West African countries such as Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.

In previous outbreaks there have been very good responses from the health care systems and also from the population, in complying with necessary quarantine regulations; the outbreak was relatively brought under control quickly.

However, that has not been the case during this epidemic, which has stretched beyond six months and is still spreading. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the scale of this outbreak is huge; it has spread to four countries including Kenya, which is a transport hub for Africa, creating a high risk for countries where goods are exported.

People from areas of outbreak have stopped going to hospitals in fear of coming in contact with infected patients, which may dramatically increase their risk of contracting the virus. With limited staff and resources, hospitals are currently unable to provide sufficient healthcare for the patients whom have been infected. These outbreaks result to not only being health emergencies but also disrupt the ongoing humanitarian efforts and the fragile economics of developing West African countries.

It is thought that the present Ebola outbreak may have started with a two-year-old patient in a village in Guinea. Researchers believe that this toddler may have been ‘Patient
Zero’ based on the chain of illnesses that they found within the toddler’s family. The pandemic may have started with one, but at the time I write this article the virus has claimed 2,473 lives and the toll is only increasing day by day.

From disruption of daily life activities to the severe blow to economy, this virus is currently one step ahead of us. The possible consequence of further spread internationally is serious, in view of the virulence of the virus and the weak health systems in the presently affected and most-at-risk countries.

Furthermore the panic which has arisen from the Ebola outbreak has caused simultaneous text messages being transmitted from various individuals, misinforming people within affected countries that infected patients should ‘bath in salt water’ or ‘drink plenty of water’ to help cure themselves. The lack of awareness and education about the virus is potentially preventing patients going to a hospital who may quite possibly require urgent medical attention.

‘WHO’ has claimed that the spread of this virus is an ‘’International public health emergency’’ but will it attract the giant pharmaceutical companies to quickly respond and pitch in their contributions or to avert the spread, before bad turns into worse?

Is it costly?

Yes. But is it worth it?

That is a matter of opinion as Ebola is considered an ‘orphan disease’ (in the United States any disease that affects less than 200,000 people is referred to as an orphan disease) and drugs for such a disease are not lucrative from a commercial point of view. Besides, such drugs can be difficult to develop and market efficiently because of limited number of patients to test upon. Proof of drug safety in small populations must be established but doing so effectively is a difficult and lengthy process.

The serum ZMapp has been in the spotlight since the emergency began. This is an experimental drug that has not been tested on humans, however has proved to shown some promising results. Nonetheless the question that arises and needs considerable head scratch is; who should get the Ebola drug?

According to the biotech firm ‘Mapp Biopharmaceutical Inc’, only 3 doses were available and they were given to westerners. The lack of availability of, and access to ZMapp, to greater populations within the West African region highlights a serious ethical failing. Why didn’t the doctor who died in West Africa while treating Ebola patients receive the drug? Is it because he wasn’t a westerner and thus not a priority?

As Ebola continues to spread and infect populations within Western Africa, countries such as China have continued their efforts to help aid hospitals, where patients are in their abundance. Supplies such as protective medical clothing, disinfectants and several medicines have continuously arrived in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, costs that have amounted to approximately five million dollars. Not only have the supplies helped equip health-workers who are currently out on the field treating patients but China has also additionally sent out medical teams who will train the local doctors and nurses, in simple procedures of disinfection as protective measures, that will hopefully tame the spread of the outbreak.

With continuing research into the Ebola virus, international efforts have held up strong to fight the outbreak. However along with the perks of globalization comes the cons, which means if people aren’t careful, we might not be too far off from the outbreak ourselves in the west. What do we do now?

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