The Ebola epidemic


With the latest figures showing a total of 13,703 cases in eight countries and a reported death toll approaching 5,000, the Ebola epidemic continues to ravage west Africa. Notwithstanding a slight levelling off in the number of deaths in Liberia and reports of some empty Ebola beds in the country, it would be a huge mistake to view this as a turning point in the battle against the disease. In neighbouring Sierra Leone, the number of cases continues to increase, with the capital Freetown a particular hotspot. And Mali became the sixth west African country to report the disease following the death of a two-year-old girl who had travelled by bus from Guinea, exposing over 80 people, who are now being closely monitored, in the process.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) more dedicated Ebola beds are still needed in the region. Healthcare workers continue to be at a premium which makes the decision by the governors of New York and New Jersey to quarantine all healthcare workers arriving from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia for 21 days especially unhelpful. It followed the positive Ebola testing of a New York-based Médecins San Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) doctor after he returned from volunteer service in Guinea.

West Africa needs more, not less, doctors and nurses from the developed world if it is to overcome this epidemic. The unnecessary quarantining of healthcare professionals on their return from the region threatens this flow of aid. It has rightly been challenged by the WHO. The science behind its stance is clear: asymptomatic travellers are not a risk of transmitting the virus. A decision by the Australian government to impose a blanket ban on visas for travel from Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea has been criticised by its senior health official in charge of the nation’s response to the virus who said there was no evidence to back the government’s claim the move was a necessary precaution. “The evidence indicates that an asymptomatic traveller from an Ebola-affected country, who has not had contact with a symptomatic person suffering from Ebola in the last 21 days poses no risk to anyone,” Dr Lynn Gilbert said.

In the Republic the successful completion of a test run to assess the authorities response to the identification of a possible case of Ebola here is welcome. The major incident planning exercise, involving the National Isolation Unit at the Mater hospital as well as the emergency services, “worked seamlessly”. Similar smaller scale trial runs involving general practitioners and regional hospitals must also be carried out.

The Ebola epidemic will be overcome, but only with the Herculean efforts of volunteer health professionals. Governments must facilitate and not inhibit this noble response.