The Ebola virus outbreak that began this spring in Guinea, West Africa, is refusing to fade out. Cases have spread into other countries in West Africa, including Liberia and Sierra Leone, and the current case count is staggering. With about 560 suspected cases (70 percent confirmed) and a death rate of more than 65 percent, it’s the largest and most lethal Ebola virus outbreak on record.
Most of the cases have been reported in Guinea, and of the viruses studied thus far, almost all relate closely to the strain seen in 2012 in the Congo. Disturbingly, the cases seen recently are increasing sharply in Sierra Leone, with 31 new cases in the past few days, while settling down finally in Guinea.
The medical support organization Doctors Wthout Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), made noise this week by proclaiming that the outbreak was “out of control,” and another expert labeled the smoldering epidemic the “tip of the iceberg.” Although the outbreak represents no threat outside the affected area, the two diagnoses appear to be correct: Lame government efforts have resulted in an unabated series of cases.
As I wrote when the first wave of cases appeared, Ebola is not that hard to contain, assuming a country provides the rudiments of public health: isolation, masks and gowns, messages to families and towns about how to avoid the illness. Unfortunately, the governments affected appear to have failed at this most basic governmental responsibility.
It is difficult to know just what has failed: whether the World Health Organization support was pulled away too quickly; whether countries relied too much on outside organizations for manpower and supplies; or whether the governments thought that by ignoring the problem, it would go away. But it has not and will not—until serious, sustained efforts are in place.
The lesson of the June Ebola outbreak is identical to the one from March. Outbreaks of various frightening diseases, from malaria to HIV to Ebola, will continue where health care systems are poorly structured and underfunded. Dr. Mwayabo Kazadi, who leads one of the many relief organizations in the area, summed up the problem quite succinctly to NBC News: “When you don’t have a proper health system in place, it is pretty difficult [to contain an epidemic].” Let’s hope the flurry of publicity MSF and other professionally worried groups have generated will rally attention and spur the necessary resources and political pressure required to bring the nightmarish epidemic to a close. Because without both money and governmental will, we could be in for a long, hot summer.