The experts are saying we in North America have nothing to fear from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa that has killed more than 1,000 people. Really?
Those same experts usually tell us the disease is not spread by air - probably not, anyway, although there has been speculation about a couple of animal-to-animal transmissions. And the experts add that our culture is quite different from that of rural sub-Saharan Africa. Here, people do not live in such close proximity with each other, and our funeral practices do not involve many family members handling the body.
We have the facilities to effectively isolate anyone thought to be sick with Ebola. Should someone ill with Ebola fly into a North American airport, we would easily apply the lessons learned from the SARS outbreak to protect ourselves.
If the experts would stop at that, we might be reassured. But to flesh out the story, someone inevitably makes a statement about how different this outbreak of Ebola is from previous ones.
Earlier outbreaks occurred in rural areas where it was relatively easy to stop the spread of the disease through quarantine. By contrast, this outbreak is in crowded urban areas where it is extremely difficult to trace everyone who has been in contact with a sick person.
To further complicate the public health response to Ebola, rumours have been spread that the medical people in their strange hazmat suits are not there to help but have actually caused the disease – not unlike the accusations that westerners inoculating people against smallpox caused HIV.
There have been cases of people trying to hide Ebola deaths, or fleeing from hospitals with sick loved ones. And health workers have been attacked.
Ebola is a scary disease - people are reacting more out of fear than ignorance. Trying to wipe out an entire racial or religious group is not unknown in Africa; witness the present situation in Iraq where ISIS militants are conducting a war to wipe out Christians and any other group that does not follow their extreme form of Islam. Lest we make the error of feeling superior, it is not unknown in the west, either. One need look no further than the Nazi efforts to annihilate Jews in the Second World War, or even earlier, to the distribution of smallpox-contaminated blankets to Natives here in North America.
Western powers have played right into the rumours and distrust, for example, when American intelligence faked a vaccination campaign to track down Osama bin Laden.
Urban areas also mean airports. SARS is fresh enough in our memories for us to know, sooner or later, someone with Ebola will arrive in Atlanta, Beijing, Dubai, London, Tokyo, Chicago, Los Angeles, Paris – or even Toronto or Vancouver. The incubation period for the disease is up to 21 days, meaning an infected person could leave Nigeria and be anywhere in the world by the time symptoms appeared, and pass through a dozen countries before the person grew sick enough to seek medical attention.
Air travel is a modern marvel that makes our world truly a global village, with benefits and opportunities earlier generations could only imagine. But there is a downside. If there was one thing we learned from SARS, it was how small this world really is.
The tragedy called Ebola that is sweeping through West Africa is only one international flight away from becoming our tragedy.
By doing whatever we can to stop this outbreak, be it throwing funds into getting more medical “troops on the ground” in West Africa, putting a major push into developing an effective vaccine, or both of the above, we are protecting ourselves and our children.
And it only makes sense for provincial funding to be provided to our hospitals and public health units, even ones here in Midwestern Ontario, so they can update their plans on how to isolate and treat contagious patients – on an ongoing basis. Ebola is only one of several tropical diseases that have been relatively rare because of physical isolation. No place is isolated anymore. – P.K., Special to The Banner