There’s a reason Ebola generates more terror than most viral illnesses: Doctors have no cure, and as many as 9 in 10 of its victims die. The only silver lining is that outbreaks have been readily contained.
Sadly, the new epidemic in Africa is another story. It has killed more than 650 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and shows no sign of abating. Last week, Sierra Leone’s top Ebola doctor became infected with the virus, and the first case was reported in Lagos, the continent’s biggest city. Doctors Without Borders has declared this outbreak to be “out of control.”
Until now, health professionals have stopped Ebola’s spread by isolating the sick, caring for them using protective gear, monitoring contact and educating communities on the way the disease spreads (through human-to-human contact with infected bodily fluids).
Because Ebola kills almost all its victims quickly and has occurred mostly in remote villages, it has never plagued humans in countries outside Africa. That risk remains small but real given that the disease has spread for the first time to capital cities, all three with airports offering international flights.
Infected people, lacking understanding of how Ebola is transmitted and fearing the stigma attached to it, have run away or been hidden by their families rather than going to treatment centers. And the bereaved have continued their custom of washing and touching the dead, which can spread the virus.
Western African countries, however, have had no experience with Ebola. Their governments were slow to acknowledge the severity of the threat. Sierra Leone even took a step backward by officially counting only cases confirmed by lab tests, which are unavailable in remote areas.
Dealing with Ebola patients is not a job for novices, given that one mistake can mean death for the caregiver. Yet even with 300 staff members devoted to the outbreak, Doctors Without Borders is overwhelmed, as is the World Health Organization. The solution here is not complicated: Send more people before the disease spreads further.
There is a reservoir of talent elsewhere in Africa – the doctors, nurses, epidemiologists, lab technicians and administrators in Uganda, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Gabon who have been through this and know how to handle Ebola. By organizing teams of them to help with the current epidemic and pass their skills on to their counterparts in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, the World Health Organization could establish a pan-African partnership that central and east Africa could, in turn, rely on down the road.
International donors such as the United States and the European Union could help fund and provision the African teams.
The governments of the three suffering countries can’t be let off the hook. An assessment of Liberia’s response to the epidemic identified poor leadership and a lack of coordination among regions as weaknesses. Above all, the governments must be transparent about the extent of the crisis.