It is a safe bet if a vaccine for Ebola were made available to people in this province tomorrow, there would be huge lineups at public health clinics.
Despite the fact that as of press time, this province has had no known cases of the disease, people are terrified of it. They should be - it is a terrifying disease, with no known cure and a high mortality rate. However, it is not easy to get, especially in an affluent country with an excellent public health system and good hygiene.
It has been noted the health care workers who contracted Ebola in the course of caring for a patient who died from the disease in Texas were not using appropriate infection control protocols. Several health experts have gone on record as saying the first line of defence against Ebola is nothing dramatic, just a combination of bleach, clean water, personal protective gear and vigilance.
We pray the outbreak of Ebola will be stopped before it reaches this country, knowing in our hearts it will strike here sooner or later. We also know in our hearts we are fortunate to live in a country where bleach and clean water, as well as protective clothing, are readily available and routinely used. Our health care facilities, from large teaching hospitals to small local ones, have the capacity to isolate and treat highly contagious patients, and staff are well versed in preventing transmission of diseases.
Still, the prospect of bypassing the need for all that with a quick shot in the arm would have a strong appeal for many of us. That would probably include people who claim it is their right not to have their children immunized against measles because of a long-disproved theory the vaccine could cause autism.
In 2011, measles caused an estimated 158,000 deaths worldwide, mostly in countries with poor nutrition and health care where the death rate for the disease is close to 30 per cent (it is only a fraction of one per cent in North America). Prior to the discovery of an effective vaccine, the disease was a feared killer, right up there with smallpox.
Smallpox is estimated to have killed some 500 million people throughout history, while measles is thought to have claimed at least 200 million lives over the centuries.
However, measles is a disease many of us had as children. We are also well acquainted with various strains of influenza, an air-borne disease that sweeps through our communities every year. If we are fortunate, it is a strain to which many of us have acquired at least partial immunity, either by having had it before, or through immunization. Viruses mutate. Every now and then a new strain hits, and claims a lot of lives. Spanish flu struck during the First World War and killed far more people than enemy bullets. Influenza has claimed an estimated 100 million lives, more than bubonic plague, more than AIDS, and a lot more than Ebola, with a present death toll of less than 5,000.
We have eradicated smallpox. Its ravages are but a distant memory. Measles and influenza, on the other hand, remain quite familiar to us. Familiarity breeds contempt. We can prevent both, the first by immunization, and the second through a combination of immunization and simple precautions like hand washing, and we often neglect to do so.
Yet Ebola terrifies us, despite the reality that unless the virus mutates and allows Ebola to be transmitted through the air, it will never claim as many lives as either measles or influenza.
Being paranoid about Ebola accomplishes nothing. If we want to take positive action, we can support efforts to create an effective Ebola vaccine, and make financial donations that will assist with measures proven effective against Ebola – disinfectants and education – in countries where the disease is spreading. It will take a strong, well-funded public health effort to stop Ebola.
If we must take some kind of personal action – focus on hand washing. It is an effective defence against Ebola, and many other diseases including the flu. So is exercise and eating nutritious food. And make sure immunizations for diseases we can prevent are up to date. – P.K.