As the number of victims of the Ebola virus nears 5,000 in West Africa, and a second case is confirmed the USA, two opposing camps are forming:
1. Those that believe that whilst isolated cases may appear in any country, there is no reason to believe that we are on course for a global pandemic.
2. Those that fear international authorities are underplaying the inherent risks of disease transmission and believe that it is only a matter of time before the virus spreads globally.
Although the worst case scenario seems unlikely at this stage, there is historical precedent to suggest that battling the Ebola virus will provide a unique challenge.
Belief, Tradition and Education
The ‘Black Death’ of the 14th century is perhaps the first well-documented instance of an international pandemic. Bubonic plague wiped out as much as one-third of the European population, destroyed communities and devastated national economies.
One of the features of the early spread of the plague was the sheer ignorance among the population about what they were facing. Conditioned by religious law, they deemed the disease an indictment by God of mankind’s fall.
Families often lived in cramped, unhygienic conditions and tended to their ill relatives in a communal setting. Such a lifestyle allowed a rapid transmission of the disease and is not dissimilar to the spread of Ebola through the impoverished shanty towns of West Africa.
Additionally, the importance of a religious burial attended by kinfolk was paramount in most 14th century societies. This enforced close contact between an infected corpse and other ‘healthy’ family members, further enabled the disease to spread. In West Africa, too, the dead bodies of Ebola victims have been claimed by their families and taken home for burial as per their religious/traditional beliefs, often condemning others in the process.
One of the major issues with controlling the Ebola virus is the absence of a clinically-tested, widely available vaccine. This is, of course, crucial when dealing with a disease against which humans have developed no immunity.
Whilst the European immune system had built up a degree of resilience to diseases such as smallpox, the indigenous Americans were helpless. Without an effective cure, they died in their millions, helping pave the way for undisputed European domination of their territories. (For more information, download Sickness on early Hispaniola)
The rapidity with which the Ebola virus claims its victims is alarming and comparable with the swift mortality of the indigenous American sufferers on contact with the Europeans.
Globalization and Transmission
We now live, indisputably, in a globalized, highly-interdependent world. Thousands of flights cross international boundaries on a daily basis, creating the opportunity for the wide and rapid transmission of a variety of diseases.
Between 1918 and 1920, at least 50 million people – potentially up to 5% of the global population – died as a result of a vicious strain of the influenza virus dubbed ‘Spanish Flu’. The pandemic reached all corners of the globe at a time when international travel and dissemination had begun to advance at great pace.
Today, we are far more globalized. Without putting a complete lockdown on the population of West Africa – whereby all sea, land and air borders are sealed – it is inevitable that some people will carry the Ebola virus to every continent.
When you add to this the potential of international volunteers helping fight the Ebola outbreak bringing back the disease, the prospects are quite worrying. Even with the most carefully-observed hygiene procedures, the level of contagion inherent in the disease makes infection difficult to avoid.
Time for Lockdown?
Although it would be a dreadful decision to have to make, there is an argument to enforce a lockdown on West Africa to at least isolate the Ebola virus in that region. Indeed, limited curfews in Liberia and Sierra Leone have succeeded in preventing further spread of the disease.
Through a combination of poor education and traditional beliefs, lack of vaccine and immunity, and globalization, Ebola is an undoubted threat to global health.
How practicable a lockdown is in reality is hard to say, though it must be an avenue which the international community endeavors to explore.