Ebola, an epidemic that has been tormenting the western African region since March and continues to rage, was the subject of an announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) which recently released data indicating that the death toll from the current epidemic had increased to 603. Their data also indicated that there had been new cases in Guinea which, it had been hoped, would begin to see a decline in new cases. This new data indicates not only that the disease is still rife in the region, but also that it is still present in its country of origin, meaning that individuals in Guinea are still being exposed to the virus (either through contact with infected individuals or animals) and most certainly meaning that the outbreak is far from over.
In response to the apparent failure of the current strategies already in place, WHO has decided to “accelerate” its activities in the region, starting today by establishing a totally new approach to the epidemic. However, unlike its and others’ original entry into the country, which was focused on getting doctors, medicines and supplies on the ground and delivering them to those in need, this new phase places a much higher priority on the education of both the citizens of all three afflicted nations and the local healthcare workers.
Their update also included language which indicates that, in addition to working with local healthcare providers, they also plan adopting an entirely new role. Whereas before they were highly reactive in attempting simply to stem the epidemic’s effects on the region wherever it happened to pop up, now they have pledged to adopt a very proactive role as a sort of logistics management and coordination liaison for those fighting the epidemic by making sure that the proper resources go to the proper places and at the correct times.
The emphasis on coordination with local medical service providers and clinics is likely the result of WHO and its allies’ less-than successful attempts at “winning the hearts and minds” of West Africans, many of whom are afraid of the foreign doctors. Reports of hiding sick relatives from health authorities to stories of infected patients fleeing treatment centers are widespread.
Other sources have heard rumors that many Western Africans believe that hospitals are “death sentences” and so will avoid being admitted even if they know they are likely infected. Locals have also taken to acts of aggression against foreigners, in some instances forcing them to flee villages which they were trying to inspect. In fact, the Red Cross recently suspended operations in the region after an entourage of their workers was attacked by a gang of naked men who threatened the group with knives.
Public outreach and education is now also a priority for WHO, which has populated their new coordination center with “communication specialists” who presumably possess expertise in mass education of populations who have so far displayed extreme amounts of ignorance about the disease. For instance, one way in which Ebola is transmitted is through contact with the infected’s bodily secretions (which remain highly contagious even after the victim dies), making their corpse contagious for months.
Unfortunately, many West African burial customs involve physical contact with the dead, including kissing, hugging and touching of the body. This means that if the deceased was an Ebola victim, any individual who participates in the ritual is very likely to be exposed to the virus that killed the deceased in the first place.
The other way in which a person can acquire the deadly disease is by consuming “bush meat,” which is meat taken from an animal caught in the vast jungle. This is because, within that vast jungle, there exists what are called “reservoirs” of Ebola which actively spread the pathogen to whatever comes into contact with it. In spite of the epidemic, many locals still continue to eat this meat, which could potentially infect them with the virus.
Some even suspect that it was precisely this practice that created the epidemic in the first place, since the first cases were among inhabitants of rural areas who then spread the disease to more populated areas, eventually creating the current situation in which the Ebola virus, having already generated a death toll of over 600, is likely to continue tormenting Western Africa for many more months.
WHO, using the knowledge of their specialists, plans to produce and promote educational programs directed towards individuals who are likely to partake in such rituals and in bush meat with the hope that they will at least temporarily cease such activities until the epidemic subsides. They have also prepared a shipment of new medical equipment for arrival which should help their medical forces continue their assault on the disease without either accidentally spreading the infection to others or becoming infected themselves.
This newest update concerning the epidemic is not as bad as it was made out to be, since although they do admit that the virus is still killing people, WHO has finally indicated that it has created a plan specifically tailored for this outbreak and is going to implement it. Before this announcement, the organization seemed to be simply playing it by the book, as if this epidemic, like the outbreaks in the Congo, would just eventually burn itself out by infecting everyone in a village, then killing all of the people it can kill while those it cannot kill survive and cease to spread the virus, thereby ending the outbreak. In these conditions, all that organizations like WHO have to do is sit by and provide palliative care and ensure that victims are isolated from uninfected individuals. So far, though, that kind of approach has done nothing but get 603 people killed.
The WHO has also placed itself at the helm of the coordination effort and plans on executing the strategy created during the emergency meeting at Accra. First they are shuffling many of their local personnel into a central location in Conakry, Guinea, where they are to establish a coordination center. According to the report, WHO has been able to work through national governments to raise armies of local doctors and volunteer health workers who they have all trained in the identification, containment and treatment of those afflicted with the Ebola virus. They also stressed the involvement of local hospitals and clinics, which will be working with these recruits to accomplish various tasks related to the eradication of the epidemic. With any luck, this plan will eventually end the Ebola epidemic which has continued to torment Western Africa, infected almost 1000 people and generated a death toll which now stands at 603, making it the highest in history.
Opinion by Andrew Waddell