Killer virus

As the death toll from the Ebola epidemic sweeping West Africa soars, there is mounting concern over the possibility of the virus spreading to other parts of the world. Since February, the Ebola virus has claimed 728 lives in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. It is a deadly virus; between 70-90 per cent of those infected die.

No vaccine or cure has been found yet and transmission of the virus requires close contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person.

Since 1976 when the Ebola virus was first identified there have been several outbreaks, all in Central and West Africa. The current outbreak is the deadliest in terms of numbers infected and fatalities. The World Health Organisation has warned that the current epidemic could prove ‘catastrophic’.

The virus is reportedly spreading faster than the effort to eradicate it. It is feared that air travel could facilitate the rapid spread of the disease across borders. This has prompted several countries to ban flights from West Africa. Others are screening African travellers at airports. While precautionary steps are needed, isolating West Africa should not be the world’s focus as the region needs global support.

An enormous challenge confronts countries battling Ebola. Besides a shortage of health personnel, lack of awareness and superstition are impeding efforts to fight the virus. Fearing confinement in an isolation hospital, many of the infected are not seeking medical treatment and prefer to stay at home. They are infecting family members and friends.

The fight against Ebola must be waged on multiple fronts. This is a public health hazard but one with a social/cultural dimension that cannot be ignored. WHO officials have drawn attention to burial rituals that require washing of the dead body, which is dangerous as the virus remains alive on the skin of the dead body, exposing the person who washes the corpse to infection. Authorities must educate the public about the nature of the disease and how it spreads.

When credible information is scarce, anxious people turn to superstition rather than science, heeding the advice of faith healers instead of doctors.

This is defeating efforts to contain Ebola. The spread of Ebola was halted several times in recent decades. This is possible with the current outbreak as well. The world must reach out to West Africa in its hour of crisis.

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