By PATRICK REAR
BOLOGNA — Open any newspaper, turn on the television or radio, and you will be confronted by the inevitable demise of humanity at the hands of the Ebola hemorrhagic fever — the virulent disease that swept across West Africa and has now reached the shores of America and Europe. The World Health Organization predicts that Ebola has an average fatality rate of 50 percent, with different outbreaks through history ranging from as low as 10 percent to as high as 90 percent, making it one of the most lethal diseases known to humanity…as long as you manage to catch it, that is.
In an Oct. 3 update on the status of the response to the most recent Ebola outbreak, the WHO reports just under 7,500 cases with just under 3,500 deaths. Due to reporting and recordkeeping problems on the ground, along with the fact that the countries affected are suffering from a serious outbreak of a deadly disease, those numbers probably don’t represent the true extent of the outbreak. Even if you vastly overestimate the number of deaths so far though, it still falls far short in comparison to equally hyped and world-ending diseases such as the flu, which kills thousands of people worldwide every year. Among the deadliest pandemics of human history, the 1918 outbreak of what came to be known as the Spanish flu rises to the top of the list. That one strain of influenza killed between 20 and 50 million people worldwide in one year, compared to a total confirmed death toll of 3,885 as a result of Ebola since it came onto the world stage in 1976, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Most of the flu-related deaths from year to year are in what are considered to be “high-risk populations.” In short, children, the elderly, and those already sick through some other disease are at a greater risk of succumbing to the flu than an average, healthy adult. Every year, doctors and public health officials urge these populations to get vaccinated against the flu to reduce the number of cases (and as a result, deaths), but it hasn’t ever been able to be fully contained. By comparison, there is no vaccine to prevent Ebola and there is no cure once you contract the disease, so why hasn’t it matched the death toll of the Spanish flu, the Black Death, or any other disease in recorded history?
In the absence of a fancy vaccine or breakthrough treatment procedure, the best way to keep oneself from contracting Ebola is simple basic sanitation. In the case of communities in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, it is the lack of proper infrastructure and facilities to quarantine the infected that have made this outbreak as horrendous as it has been. Unsurprisingly, those most at risk of contracting Ebola are the family members of people already sick with the disease, and the doctors and nurses who care for them. In a developed country such as the United States, where proper containment and quarantine procedures can be followed, the risk of a major outbreak drops dramatically.
To those who would rather seal our borders and cut off all contact with infected areas, such a strategy cannot make the situation any better and would likely do just the opposite. The additional resources that can be deployed by developed countries such as the United States are a great help for the doctors working on the ground in Africa, compared with a negligible chance that the disease could ever gain a foothold in the United States or Western Europe.
We will continue to hear about the rising death toll in Africa, and if more cases make their way to the Western world, those will be reported on as well, but we need to keep in mind the bigger picture of it all and realize our position in it. The chance that any of us will die from some other disease dwarfs the possibility that we will die from Ebola, and the costs of cutting off the support that can fight this outbreak will make the world distinctly worse off than it was before. Perhaps this event will even give humanity the impetus to find a cure for Ebola and eradicate it once and for all, as has been done for smallpox and polio already, as well as for even deadlier diseases ravaging the African continent, such as malaria or HIV.