With the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the US, fears regarding the disease have arisen all over the world. Ebola started with the death of a two-year-old girl on December 6, 2013 in Meliandou, a small village in southeastern Guinea. Till October 9, 3,885 people have been reported to have died from the disease in four West African countries: Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. The total number of reported cases is in excess of 8,033.
Ebola is a very dangerous disease and there is no vaccination for it. Humans can get the infection through contact with infected animals, as well as from their products. It can also spread from human-to-human contact through secretions, such as saliva, blood, urine, faeces, contaminated needles and handling of corpses. The virus can break its victim within days, causing severe muscular pain, headaches, vomiting, diarrhoea, and in most cases, unstoppable bleeding as the patient’s organs break down and seep out of their bodies.
I was in West Africa for a year and came back recently. During my stay, I witnessed the start of Ebola in the region. There were some warning signs quite early and organisations, like the WHO and Doctors Without Borders had warned about its outbreak. Unfortunately, the governments of the region did not pay heed to these warnings and the international community realised the gravity of the situation only when it had spread to other countries. Unfortunately, there were no testing laboratories for Ebola in West Africa and the symptoms are similar to other diseases, like pneumonia and cholera, so even doctors could not diagnose it properly.
Nearly six months after the first case of Ebola was reported to the WHO, the UN General Assembly and the Security Council have approved resolutions creating the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response to contain the outbreak .This is the first time in history that the UN has created a mission for a public health emergency. The mission will bring together the vast resources of the UN agencies, funds and programmes, to reinforce the WHO’s technical expertise and experience in handling disease outbreaks.
Ebola has not only exposed the weak healthcare system in West Africa, but its spread will also have far-reaching socio-political and economic implications. The region is sure to suffer on the economic front. Airlines have stopped their flights to the region. Visitors and investors are fleeing the area. Unemployment is already very high and this crisis will further deepen the economic woes of the people. The governments of the regions are weak and dependent on international agencies, like the UN and the Economic Community of West African States, for their survival. The crisis has exposed their inherent weakness and will further weaken these fragile democracies.
The healthcare system in Pakistan is not good either. Diseases like polio, tuberculosis, hepatitis and pneumonia are on the rise here. Though there may not be any direct threat of Ebola here, we have still failed to appreciate the fact that more than 3,000 Pakistani troops are stationed in the West African region. Similarly, many Pakistanis are working in various international humanitarian agencies there. And then there are people who left Pakistan for greener pastures, but somehow ended up in West Africa and are doing menial jobs there. They interact with the locals and are living in the poor areas, which are more susceptible to the spread of the virus.
The WHO has warned that Europe is almost certain to see further cases of Ebola, with the disease having the capacity to spread from China to the US. The US has introduced temperature screening of passengers arriving from West Africa at five American airports. It is high time Pakistan also began screening of travellers travelling from West Africa. There are serious chances that this virus can spread to Pakistan, so there is a need to take immediate measures in this regard before it is too late.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 16th, 2014.