When a virus goes viral

Trevor Grundy

Arena Science

Superstition and a slow response created a perfect storm that led to the spread of Ebola, now threatening to spread beyond West Africa to the rest of the world

Ebola Campaign

WHO / Andrew Esiebo

It has shown its deadly face across West Africa. It has appeared from behind normally safe medical curtains in America and Spain. It now threatens the world – Ebola.

When the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) warned in October last year that as many as 1.4 million people could be carrying the virus by the end of January 2015, several scientists also warned that the virus could mutate and become airborne, threatening the whole of mankind and not just millions of people in West Africa. That chilling number – 1.4 million – was released at the same time as a report in the New England Journal of Medicine warned that the outbreak might never be fully controlled and that the virus could become epidemic, crippling civil life in affected countries and presenting an on-going threat of spreading elsewhere.

These dire scenarios from highly respected medical sources were contrasted by optimism from US officials that an accelerated response could contain the outbreak in the months between autumn last year and the start of 2015. CDCP director Tom Frieden cautioned that the estimates from his agency did not take into account the planned actions by the American government and the international community. Help was on its way, albeit slowly, to the worst hit West African countries, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“A surge now [October 2014] can break the back of the epidemic, but delay is extremely costly,” Frieden said.

For many with money to spend and journeys to make, it’s clearly time to revise schedules and re-think investment priorities. What, then, for a continent that only a year ago was presented by banks and financial institutions as such a fertile field for investment? A return, perhaps, to the bad old days of being branded the world’s hungriest and most un-promising continent?

Precisely when politicians, nurses and doctors found out about the start of the 25th outbreak of Ebola in Africa remains unclear. During an interview with the BBC last October, Dr Christopher Dye, director of strategy for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, said: “We’ve known about this outbreak for nine months now but until around June or July it was a very small outbreak, – relatively few cases and not dissimilar from previous outbreaks that we have seen in Central and Equatorial Africa.”

Clearly rattled, the BBC interviewer exclaimed – “Nine months ago? In March, Médecins Sans Frontières said that they were overwhelmed with cases in Guinea. That should have alerted the WHO and you should have managed to get straight on the phone to governments and they would have listened to you, surely?”

Said Dye: “We were alerted by the government in Guinea in March and we began to take action at that point but…”

BBC: “Did you at that point understand that this was possibly very grave and communicate that to world leaders?”

Dr Dye: “We didn’t anticipate that this outbreak was going to be as big as it has become. But, frankly, nobody was in a position to anticipate that at the time. The important thing is not to look backwards but to look at where we are now at the moment and how we’re going forward.”

Asked if he was confident that the international community was doing all it needed to do to control the spread of Ebola, he replied: “Yes.”

A few days later, an editorial in The Times suggested that NATO should take over the fight against the deadly virus.

Charlie Cooper, health correspondent of The Independent, said West Africa was just 60 days away from a human catastrophe, with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), which links 13 major British charities and fund-raising organisations, launching an unprecedented appeal to secure millions of pounds to fund the fight against Ebola, now branded by the WHO as “the most severe public health emergency in modern times”.

As we wait and see what happens in 2015, Africa’s tourist sectors are under threat – even as far away from West Africa as Tanzania – as well as its fragile medical services, even its political stability. But while we wait and worry and condemn the apparent slowness of an organised international response to a disaster in West Africa, we should collectively honour one of the truly great men in the fight against Ebola – Dr Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

In 1976, fresh from medical schools in Belgium and Holland, and just 27 years of age, he co-discovered the Ebola virus in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). As the epidemic widened at the end of 2014, killing thousands of unprotected men, women and children, Piot issued a warning aimed at the heart of ancient cultural and religious practices throughout West Africa – the practice of touching, and sometimes kissing, the corpse of a loved one at funerals.

In an interview he said that in many parts of Africa there are strong traditional beliefs that the whole family should touch the dead body. Various steps, he explained, had to be taken by religious and cultural leaders to make sure that the spirit of a dead person went from this material world to another spiritual place where the dead would live again in another form as ancestors. Touching and kissing the corpse are part of the ritual – but dead bodies carry the deadly Ebola virus until they are buried or burned.

His warning received a good response from responsible civic and religious leaders. Churches across the region have been closed. Rites of worship have been changed, including the practice of passing round a cup from person to person during the Christian Holy Communion sacrament.

Piot, who has done so much to help Africans through science, has provided those striving to contain an epidemic threatening the world with practical advice, the kind not normally handed out to American, European doctors, nurses, or other health workers, or soldiers from NATO who might soon be asked to go to war against an enemy they cannot see.

About the author:

Trevor Grundy is a British journalist who lived and worked in Central, Eastern and Southern Africa and represented Time magazine, the BBC’s Focus on Africa, Deutsche Welle and the South African broadcasting Corporation SABC. Today he is a researcher and author based in Kent, and an active member of the Commonwealth Journalists Association


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