The spread of the deadly Ebola virus in Africa is a global health emergency. Countries around the world must join together to mobilize the resources; build the isolation units; supply the medicine, doctors, nurses and support personnel needed to isolate and treat those afflicted; track down and monitor those who might have been in contact; and stop the epidemic.
The toll of the victims of the epidemic — centered in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone — is rising. The World Health Organization now reports more than 7,400 confirmed or likely cases and 3,431 deaths. On Sept. 23, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that without a more robust response, as many as 1.4 million cases could erupt in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January 20.
The virus is deadly but not particularly infectious. It spreads only from direct contact from the bodily fluids — sweat, blood, vomit — of someone infected after the fever and other symptoms have occurred. Unfortunately, the incubation period (the time after someone is infected but before symptoms appear) lasts a week and sometimes as long as three weeks.
People can travel long distances unaware that they are carrying the disease. This poses a challenge for health officials who must make the public aware so that they are cautious, without spreading panic. It also means that the entire world has a stake in countering this lethal epidemic.
The disease can be stopped. An American victim, undiagnosed, carried the disease into crowded Lagos, Nigeria. More people live in Lagos than in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone combined. A vigorous response — investigating all in contact with the patient, monitoring them, and isolating those who showed symptoms — cleared the virus with only eight deaths.
Nigeria had the public health and governmental capacity to respond. But in West Africa, civil wars and chronic poverty have disrupted already meager local health systems. Doctors are scarce; health workers had no experience with the disease.
As Nigeria shows, we need mobilization, not panic, particularly with the chilling news that a Liberian, Thomas E. Duncan, tested positive for the disease in Dallas, the first case diagnosed in this country.
Duncan, now deceased, traveled to the U.S. without being aware that he was infected. However, he did come into direct contact with a woman while in Liberia, and he failed to report the truth on an airport health questionnaire. When he contracted a fever, he went to the hospital but was sent home without proper testing. When his symptoms grew worse, he was taken back to the hospital and isolated.
Public health authorities have mobilized, identifying and monitoring all those who might have had contact with him. CDC officials fanned out in the hospital and in his neighborhood to investigate. Happily, as pediatrician Matt Karwowski reported to the Washington Post, “There was no resistance from anyone whatsoever… At every single door people welcomed us in… They were also fearful, but not of us.” The CDC teams have been working 18 hours a day.
This epidemic is a human disaster. It will devastate not only its victims, but also millions more as economies freeze up, schools close, tourism dries up, and fear spreads.
In this country, some will use the epidemic to fan racial divides or to posture on immigration. President Obama is already being criticized for providing military assistance to build hospital units and transport necessary equipment and medicine in Liberia. Some treat Duncan more as a criminal than a patient due to his failing to report the truth. His family reports that even those who have been cleared are now shunned in their community.
In Jesus’ time, lepers were treated as unclean, sowing fear and hatred. On one of his last nights, Jesus stayed at the home of Simon the Leper. He showed that we should be fighting the disease, not the person. That is a lesson we should remember in the days ahead of us.
Jesse L. Jackson, Sr. is founder and president of the Chicago-based Rainbow PUSH Coalition. See his work at www.rainbowpush.org.