Beyond Ebola and Polio

World needs to realise that there are other illnesses seriously affecting patients and these are not getting attention

The writer is a physician and a public health professional based in Geneva, Switzerland

Ebola and Polio have received much global attention and engulfed resources at an unprecedented scale. This has been the story of global public health in the past few years. Whilst both diseases are dangerous and life-threatening, Ebola is more prevalent in certain African countries, especially Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, where, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 10,000 cases had been reported till August 2015. There were deaths reported as well, but the toll has been much lower compared to what it was when the outbreak first occurred in August 2014 in the Democratic Republic of Congo where multiple cases and deaths were reported. According to the Centers of Disease Control, the natural reservoir of Ebola has not yet been found but it is believed to be transmitted during contact with infected animals (commonly referred to as ‘bushmeat’). It is not transmitted via air, water or food. Symptoms include fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting and unexplained bleeding. Treatment involves supportive care and depends on the patient’s physical condition and immune response. The WHO website records 109 cases of Ebola and 11,305 resultant deaths until August 30, 2015. While these numbers are high they are not astounding when compared to the number of deaths due to a disease like tuberculosis (TB). In 2013, about nine million people were infected with TB and 1.5 million died, even though the disease is curable and is easily transmissible from person to person. TB rarely receives the kind of attention Ebola and polio do.

The Time magazine has estimated that close to $800 million have been mobilised by different countries to fight Ebola. That’s certainly an astounding figure. There are an interesting set of reasons as to why Ebola is getting more attention than other viruses: 1) In a New York Times article of September 2014, experts had predicted that there could soon be 1.4 million cases of Ebola, though this never happened; 2) The virus was believed to be spreading in the West, but it was only reported in two locations in the US; 3) Public health experts were quoted as saying that Ebola needed attention because it had wiped out families. But so have TB and AIDS; 4) There was a lack of health facilities in affected countries to treat the virus. But this is applicable to health facilities in general for the treatment of all health issues in countries like Pakistan.

Polio is another virus which has received extensive attention, with Pakistan at the centre of this. Most of attention received in this regard is for the right reasons. The recent meeting of the Independent Monitoring Board held in London determined that the ambitious Polio Eradication and Endgame Strategic Plan of 2013-2018 will cost $5.5 billion. That is a lot of money.

I do not intend to undermine the importance and dangers of diseases like Ebola and Polio. The point I want to make is that the world’s healthcare bodies, governments and all other stakeholders need to realise that there are other illnesses seriously affecting patients and communities around us and these are not getting enough attention.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2015.

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