First Ebola, Then Zombies

The news about Ebola in west Africa is dreadful.  A new assessment of the outbreak by the World Health Organization forecasts that the number of people infected and killed by the disease may increase dramatically and become “endemic” in that region — which means that it would never be fully eliminated in countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.  The WHO also says the death rate for those infected with Ebola is 70 percent.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts that the Ebola epidemic may infect 1.4 million people in west Africa by the end of January.  Multiply that number by the 70 percent death rate and you see an enormous human disaster if steps to control the disease don’t work.  Even worse, with each new infected person, there is an increased risk that the devastating disease will break out of west Africa and penetrate into the world at large — and if that happens the forecasted numbers will become astronomical.

And then there is this story from Liberia, which reports that two women killed by Ebola have mysteriously risen from the dead.  The two were about to be buried when they returned to life, causing panic in their communities.  The news report of the incident helpfully notes:  “Since the Ebola outbreak in Nimba County, this is the first incident of dead victims resurrecting.”  The report is silent on whether the two women have since exhibited the signs of undead behavior — like staggering around and munching on the brains of the living — that are familiar to any fans of zombie movies.

Of course, under these circumstances jokes about a zombie apocalypse aren’t very funny.  The zombie story just highlights the fact that west Africa is totally ill-equipped — culturally, medically, and scientifically — to deal with an outbreak of a highly lethal contagious disease.  When you combine superstitious people, the absence of doctors who can reliably diagnose and treat the disease and determine whether its victims are actually dead, an insufficient supply of bodysuits, decontamination supplies, medication, and other necessary supplies, and inadequate sanitation and means of disposing of the bodies of those killed by Ebola, you have created an ideal setting for an uncontrolled epidemic.

A recent New York Times story about one overworked gravedigger in Freetown, Sierra Leone paints a bleak picture and powerfully makes the case that the Ebola outbreak may have reached a terrible tipping point.  We had all better hope that — zombies or not — the efforts to control the disease are effective.

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The Alarm About Ebola

Africa seems very far away to most Americans.  In contrast to, say, Europe, we don’t know most of the names of the countries, we don’t learn much about the geography of the African continent, and we tend to hear about it only when a particularly bloodthirsty dictator or terrorist organization has committed another outrage.  The recent outbreak of Ebola Zaire in west Africa, though, is a story that should command the attention of Americans and everyone else in the world.

Ebola, which is transmitted by contact with bodily fluids, is one of the most deadly diseases in the world.  It’s a virus that wreaks havoc with human blood systems and immune responses, and in this most recent outbreak it has infected more than 2,000 people and has killed more than half of them.  In fact, in past outbreaks Ebola has been so deadly that it has restricted itself:  people who were infected became symptomatic and died before they had a chance to infect other people.  This time, though, the progress of the disease seems to be slower, somehow, and infected people have more of an opportunity to infect others.  For this reason, no one is quite sure how many people have been infected with Ebola in this latest outbreak — or, more importantly, exactly where they are.  That’s one of the things that should concern everyone.

There are other points of concern, too.  The deadliness of the disease has caused a breakdown of the health care systems in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where this current outbreak is centered.  Due to fear of Ebola, many health care workers have fled their hospitals — which not only leaves Ebola untreated, but also opens the door to the spread of other diseases like malaria that are found in the region.  Even Doctors Without Borders is having trouble finding people to treat Ebola patients.

In addition, this latest Ebola outbreak has occurred in a place where Ebola has never been seen before.  The virus somehow traveled hundreds of miles, from central Africa to west Africa, without any human outbreaks along the way; researchers think it might have been carried by swarms of bats.  Now it is found in much more densely populated areas and — here is a key point — areas that have airports that can carry passengers to huge international airports where they can connect to flights that might carry them just about anywhere in the world.  Combine that fact with the more slow-moving nature of this strain of Ebola, and you can see how this disease could spread, uncontrolled, to a much larger geographic area. 

And here’s the last concerning thing:  this deadly disease outbreak is raging on a continent that has been home to chaos, tribal genocide, rampaging terrorist groups, and other forms of social disorder in recent times.  In Monrovia, Liberia, “looters” recently attacked a temporary holding center for Ebola patients, ransacked it, and ran off with blood-soaked sheets and mattresses.  That troubling incident raises the question of whether they weren’t “looters” at all, but rather members of a terrorist group — such as Boko Haram — who are trying to acquire a means to spread the disease as part of their savage campaign to establish control over territory and kill anyone who doesn’t adopt their religious and political views.  That is truly a frightening scenario.

So this story manages to combine an incredibly deadly disease, a mass outbreak, swarms of virus-carrying bats, health system breakdowns, and potential terrorist concerns in one appalling package.  Yes, I’d say this is a time when we all should be paying attention to news from Africa.