Ebola kills but focus is on US

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) staff set up an isolation unit to treat people with suspected Ebola haemorrhagic fever in Kaluamba village, Western Kasai province, January 1, 2009. Photo/REUTERS

What you need to know:

If the disease was to strike in New York or California, it would get more attention

A deadly virus is once again prowling, devouring victims in the commonly first candidate for disasters: Africa. The story of Ebola virus’ lethal activity isn’t hitting the headlines, a 50th anniversary ignored.

That, unfortunately, is understandable. People of the world are salivating at the inauguration of US President-elect Barack Obama next week and rightly so. He’s not only the first non-Anglo Saxon to ascend to the topmost political job worldwide, but also an Africa-American, a historically downtrodden people.

Moreover, outgoing President George W. Bush is busy ensuring he doesn’t have to strip publicly to be noticed. Israelis and Palestinians have resumed national pastime: blowing up each other. Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan are itching for a fight, potentially of an Armageddon proportion.

News from the Democratic Republic of Congo, one of Africa’s politically and economically ailing countries, say health officials are busy trying to contain an Ebola outbreak. That shouldn’t be difficult. The disease fizzles fast. That’s the problem. Except for a few researchers, people forget.

Two days ago, the Voice of America reported Mr Gregory Hertl of the World Health Organisation as saying five of 42 patients tested positive to Ebola, 12 were probable cases and 25 suspected. Mr Hertl made some observations. They indicate how relatively little attention the world has paid to Ebola, definitely identified as is now known 50 years ago: That immediate diagnosis doesn’t exist.

“Certainly, also, in the early phases of the disease, there are actually many diseases which have similar presentation which is basically a spike in fever, plus vomiting and diarrhoea. It’s only in the later stages of Ebola do you start to see the tell-tale hemorrhagic symptoms,” he said. Of course, Ebola isn’t the only disease that has been around for a half a century and a cure remains illusive. On the other hand, Ebola excels in killing speed—within 21 days of infection, and efficiency, 25 percent to 90 percent fatality rate, WHO says.
First identified

Five strains of Ebola virus exist: Zaire, Sudan, Bundibugyo (Uganda) Ivory Coast and Reston. The latter is actually from Philippines, but first identified in a United States town of Reston. Outbreaks of the first three have occurred in central Africa. Zaire virus is the most lethal. Reston species, which apparently include Cote d’Ivoire, infect humans but don’t cause serious illness or death.

Ebola’s characteristics are sudden fever, intense weaknesses, muscle pain and sore throat. Vomiting, diarrhoea, rash and impaired kidney and liver functions follow. Mr Hertl noted these symptoms are indicative of other illnesses. Neither a vaccine nor cure for Ebola exists.

Researchers have a hard time studying the virus. Because it’s so hot, special laboratories and equipment are required. Only a few countries can afford them. Consequently, researchers have made little progress. That isn’t all though. Passionate international fury against the Ebola virus fraternity remains nonexistent.

Reasons for the fury’s absence are obvious. Outbreaks are sporadic and far apart. Ebola, according to WHO, has infected about 1,850 people and killed 1,200 in far away and remote parts of Africa. The disease consumes victims fast and can’t be transmitted through the air. Quarantine works.

Combined, these factors create an illusion of safety. However, viruses aren’t stupid. They hide, mutate and multiply. More graphically, a little “sex of Ebola strains” might have produced the latest species, Bundibugyo, ad infinitum, and a killer with more stamina emerges.

Inhumane as it might sound, it probably would be productive were the Ebola virus strains to migrate, say to New York and California. There, they would knock down one notoriety and get the attention they deserve. A precedent exists, HIV, the virus that causes Aids.