There have been many news stories, articles, and talk about the present Ebola outbreak in West Africa. Most of the commentary has focused on the ways in which the virus is transferable and the measures behind prevention. Very few have mentioned the science behind an outbreak like Ebola or how disruptive a disease like this can be to a nation, including severe interruption of economic activity. Furthermore, all sectors of society are impacted, including food production and distribution, education of children, workplace safety, and access to treatment of other serious diseases like malaria, just to name a few.
Ebola is an often fatal disease that is thought to be transmitted from animals to people and then spread to others by direct contact with an infected person. Ebola has been around much longer than most of us realize, with the first case being recorded in 1976. However, the outbreak that began in March of 2014 is the largest and deadliest thus far. Knowing that the disease has been around for almost 40 years has enabled medical scientists to collect large amounts of data over the years. This data has a reoccurring theme showing that it is very possible that this recent outbreak could have been blocked before it became such an issue.
With the help of developed countries, the Ebola epidemic could have been halted sooner. Moderate investments throughout the years could have been the answer to the now problematic question of how to stop Ebola. “Stopping outbreaks where they occur is the most effective and least expensive way to protect people’s health”, said Dr. Beth Bell, director of CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases. The prior investments could have enhanced the advancement of public health infrastructure within West Africa, could have provided early detection, and possibly the problem could have been contained sooner. Investments in public health infrastructure, resulting in additional hospitals and treatment centers, could have helped to slow the outbreak of Ebola infections, and fewer people would have fallen victim to this often deadly disease. Monies spent in prevention and development of a more resilient health care system in West Africa might have been much less than what the developed nations are now faced with paying, if we want to take bold action in stopping the spread of the disease.
Governments are not the only ones that need to invest in public health infrastructure as a whole. Businesses are at fault as well and are also suffering the consequences. Aecom Technology Corporation had to remove 10,000 employees from Liberia, which led to a standstill in their new rail infrastructure and public housing project. Other companies, such as Walt Disney World Resorts, need to start planning accordingly to address global public health challenges. Gary Lawrence, whose sustainability credentials are impressive, believes that collaboration is the only solution for outbreaks and prevention.
While this is epidemic is tragic it allows for the opportunity of changing our thinking that problems only matter once they reach the point of no going back. Ebola and other diseases throughout history show this overwhelming pattern of government intervention after the fact. This is quite similar to sustainability efforts, often delayed until after a disaster has already unfolded, rather than building resiliency and flexibility in the overall infrastructure. In fact, many observers have pointed to extreme drought as a causative factor of malnutrition, food insecurity, and environmental imbalance. These concurring factors can lead to unrest and altered behavior patterns, such as turning to bush meat from wild animals. Let us hope that we have all learned an important lesson during this outbreak, and that the developed world will continue to support efforts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea to bring the Ebola outbreak under control, and to return to more normalized routines. This time the governments and public may have waited too long, and now must face the consequences of our delays, but without question we must now adapt and mitigate.