The recent news story that a man from Liberia who is infected with the Ebola virus landed in Texas has sent fear across the United States. This turn of events has prompted at least two U.S. senators to begin advocating for a travel ban from West African countries to prevent arrivals into the U.S. Health officials in the U.S. have determined that a travel ban would curtail efforts to get much needed supplies to the affected regions.
In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, where most of the outbreak is being experienced, there is a tremendous need for supplies to help prevent the spread. The concern regarding what the World Health Organization has called the worst Ebola outbreak is the lack of healthcare resources to adequately respond to the growing crisis. The outbreak has so far taken more than 3,400 lives, with close to 7,500 cases recorded. The list of countries has grown to include Nigeria and Senegal, although the number of persons in these countries who have contracted the virus is currently very small.
As with conspiracy theories on the origins of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the Internet is rife with similar ideas about the origins of the Ebola virus and the intent for its creation. It would be irresponsible to speculate here about these ideas, but it bears recognizing that the fear of the virus means different things to different people. There are Black people on this side of the Atlantic Ocean who see this as another focused attack on people of African descent. Others are fearful of being infected by people entering the country carrying the virus.
Ontario’s Health Minister, Dr. Eric Hoskins, assured the public that there was no need for concern as recently as mid-August, when a person who had arrived from Nigeria was admitted to Brampton Civic Hospital for observation over concerns that he was exhibiting symptoms that resembled Ebola. It turns out that he didn’t have Ebola.
The Greater Toronto Area had faced the threat of SARS (sudden acute respiratory syndrome) through the spring and summer of 2003. There were over 400 suspected SARS cases and 44 deaths during that time, and 25,000 people were placed in quarantine. The local SARS outbreak was traced to one woman who had contracted it while traveling in Hong Kong. SARS spread quickly in part because it could be airborne. Ebola is not an airborne virus.
Containing the outbreak is one thing, however, there is no vaccine that can definitively control the Ebola virus once it is contracted. Some experimental drugs for treatment do exist. Furthermore, two American aid workers who contracted the virus were flown back to the U.S. and treated with one such drug and recovered. Yet the claim now is there is not enough of any of these experimental drugs to meet the crisis in Africa.
As with the reaction to SARS when it hit Toronto and the GTA, the threat of the Ebola virus in West Africa has already cost the region, not only in lives lost but also in commerce and tourism. Travelers are being advised to stay away at this time.
We live in a world where travel from one faraway place to another can be accomplished in one day, so the fear is understandable. We are being asked to trust that the system here for containing any possible carrier is failsafe. Given the high death rate from Ebola, we certainly hope so. The Liberian man who traveled to Texas has been determined to have been in contact with 80 other individuals. The unanswered question so far is how many other people those 80 have been in contact with.
We like to think that we are far away from the troubles of the world, whether deadly viral outbreaks or other seemingly intractable problems, however, what happens there, wherever that happens to be, can happen here as well. SARS proved that. We must have strong assurances that the risk of the spread of this contagion has the full and vigilant attention of those entrusted to safeguard our health.
We don’t need to add panic here to a situation that thousands of kilometres away is proving a growing and deadly challenge.