24th December 2013 saw the first contraction of the Ebola virus, when a toddler in a suburb in Guinea came in contact with a fruit bat. The toddler passed it on to his mother and both of them died within a week. In the past, Ebola outbreaks have always been managed, contained and stemmed out by the root as the virus tends to infect rural communities and the number of infected cases remains low enough to be completely eliminated. However, this time, the virus was not contained. It reached cities and capitals, where closely crammed population meant a rapid spread of the virus. The virus was not originally contained due to the collapsing health care systems and was therefore allowed to spread over borders into Liberia and Sierra Leone. By the end of March, the virus had claimed 82 lives. This number rose to 50 a day by October. 3,330 people had died by 1st October, according to WHO figures; a further 7,157 have been reported as infected.
Furthermore, the virus had managed to cross oceans, as a Liberian visitor, Thomas Duncan, flew out to Dallas, becoming the first case of Ebola in US in October. Duncan died of the virus on the 8th of October. The Centre of Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) director, Dr. Tom Frieden, aims to snuff the virus out and stop it “in its tracks”. He does not doubt the abilities of the health care system of his country in doing so. Special jets are used to evacuate suspected Ebola infected health workers in West Africa; such are the measures to prevent Ebola from spreading out of West Africa.
Whilst the US seem fairly confident about its fight against Ebola, West Africa’s suffering intensifies. In Monrovia, radio stations heard rants from the locals as Ebola took over the capital. A prime issue of conflict was when US authorities refused to release the name of the Ebola patient (Duncan) initially, which made it harder for Liberian health service to investigate potential cases exposed to the virus for example Duncan’s family.
As scientists in US, UK and Canada work frantically on vaccines and human trials in order to certify these vaccines as credible, it will be a while till West Africa, the root of this virus, benefits from such measures as the health care system is fast collapsing, overwhelmed by the number of cases. Ebola is exhausting the already poor health system in West Africa. Some states where civil war has barely allowed the health system to flourish in recent years for example Sierra Leone, Ebola is further hindering any attempts to restore the hospitals and implement health care strategies.
Health workers in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea did not have enough help to fight Ebola. Help came too late. Firstly, it was bad enough that the virus had hit cities, speeding up the already contagious nature of the virus. Secondly, regional response, as well as international attention was slow to arrive. On 12th of August, the Liberian government issued a hotline to request safe transfer of suspected patients. The hotline received 2,000 calls a day, exhausting the health care system of the country, six government ambulances had to keep several waiting for days. 3,000 US troops were deployed to build treatment facilities in October. However, the question remains as to why the action was delayed more than half a year. The first outbreak was identified in March 2014 in Guinea. Cases went unreported as few paid attention. “Instead of 3,000 troops, it would be better to send 300 doctors” says Daylue Goah at JFK General Hospital in Liberia. Coordinator of the emergency response for the International Red Cross appreciates the recent efforts but also claims that they were “trying to wave the flag that this was a potential major threat, and we got not engagement.” To support the accusation of a delayed response, Robert Gary, a virologist from Tulane University, who had been researching the virus extensively in Sierra Leone, returned to the US in May and voiced his concerns with the US State Department of Health and Human Services. He claims that “The response was cordial, but nothing happened,” further adding that he “was trying to show that we are at tipping point and that this had the potential to spiral out of control.” CDC predicted that given the current efforts in place to combat Ebola, cases in Sierra Leone and Liberia, could hit 1.4 million by mid – January 2015. A tipping point, where the number of patients becomes seemingly uncontrollable, no matter the size of the health care force, seems to be approaching fast. And once that point is reached, Ebola will become everybody’s problem.
By 16th September, the UN had formed an emergency task force and made an appeal for $1 billion to battle Ebola, by then, the virus had infected up to 5,000 people. The virus “is spreading faster than aid is arriving,” says David Nabarro, U.N’s coordinator for Ebola. Despite U.N’s actions, it wasn’t until August, that WHO declared Ebola as a global public health emergency – “It took 1,000 deaths and five months before this was declared a public-health emergency,” says Peter Piot, the very first scientist who had discovered the virus dating back to 1976. Piot suggests that it is very important to look into the future and produce strategies to tackle this global issue, “we need to start thinking about how we will never let this happen again.” Piot suggests that it is very important to look into the future and produce strategies to tackle this global issue, “we need to start thinking about how we will never let this happen again.”
As off 21st December, Ebola has claimed 7,580 lives. The breakdown of this figure narrows down to: 3,376 in Liberia, 2,582 in Sierra Leone, 1,607 in Guinea and 8 in Nigeria, 7 in Mali and 1 is US. WHO has declared the outbreak as officially over in Nigeria and Senegal as no new cases have emerged since the 1st of September.
Time Magazine (22nd December) also officially labelled the Ebola Fighters; the volunteers risking their health and life in the field, as Person(s) of the Year.