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Global issue 20

Arena Science When a virus goes viral 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 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.” Trevor Grundy Touching and kissing the corpse are part of the ritual – but dead bodies carry the Ebola virus until they are buried or burned WHO /Andrew Esiebo 46 l www.global -br ief ing.org f i rst quar ter 2015 global


Global issue 20
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