By Richard Bigega
When I was a little lad, Ebola was a few miles from home, just across the border in Kabare, one of the largest slums in Uganda. This suburb in southern Uganda, a country in East Africa, had several cases of Ebola, but at the time, the disease never crossed the border to Rwanda, my birth country. Uganda embarked on embargoes that stopped the outbreak. Few will deny that this time around is different: the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the worst in history.
Ascertaining possible measures to avert the Ebola from spreading around the world, and especially to keep it out of home here in the USA, should be a priority. But I disagree with people who are reinforcing the fears and paranoia driving America’s quasi-apocalyptic political mood. I disagree with people who think that every person coming from the African continent is contaminated. The fear of the general public doesn’t disappoint; what disappoints the most is that pundits and political figures are the ones causing worry and anxiety so many of us are feeling these days.
The big problem is ignorance and misinformation with Ebola. It is not acceptable to see a clueless Kentucky school causing the resignation of a teacher because she spent time in Kenya. And that idiocy leads to fear, which leads to people like Chris Christie implementing nonsensical anti-science quarantine restrictions, and most recently seeing Governor LePage of Maine hunting down a nurse who was initially screened and found free of Ebola a few weeks ago.
This is not blind optimism, but I shall state that the recent Ebola scare that kept two children who had moved from Rwanda to New Jersey from attending school, despite the fact the East African country is Ebola-free (and further from West Africa than New Jersey is to Texas) is an absolute bêtise. In fact, Africa is a continent, and Westerners often have trouble understanding its geography. Earlier this year, The Washington Post ran an online quiz that asked their readers to name African nations. Most cannot locate a single country of Africa on a blank map.
The Ebola outbreak is not a new story. In 2000, Ebola occurred in Gulu, Masindi, and Mbarara districts of Uganda, just a few miles from my home district in Rwanda. The three greatest risks were associated with people attending funerals of case-patients, having contact with case-patients in one’s family, and providing medical care to case-patients without using adequate personal protective measures.
A few years later, Uganda was struck again by Ebola; this time around it occurred in Bundibugyo District in western Uganda between December 2007 and January 2008. It is not surprising that the disease disappeared again. What is surprising the most is that Uganda did little to stop it. But they did not have advanced medical technology like Western countries do.
Despite today’s outbreak being the largest in history, so far the problem remains largely limited to Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Two other countries, Nigeria and Senegal, have had cases, yet are now Ebola-free. The Democratic Republic of Congo had an outbreak of a different strain of Ebola that now looks like it might be contained. Despite clear geographical limits to the Ebola outbreak, many Americans seem confused. On August 1, 2014, Donald J. Trump, an American magnate businessman and political shaker, said in his tweet, “The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go far away places to help out are great—but must suffer the consequences!”
Many people seem to understand Ebola and its scope of expansion, but still everyone seems unaware of exactly how many Ebola patients are in Africa.
The epidemic is at a critical turning point. It has infected 8,400 people so far, but it is spreading very quickly and projections suggest it could infect 1 million people or more over the next several months if not addressed. Ebola needs to get under control in the near term so that it doesn’t spread further and become a long-term global health crisis that we end up fighting for decades at a large scale, similar to the fight against HIV or polio.
The bottom line is that people should not act in fear, but they should heroically take measures that keep them away of the danger. While the use of survivor’s blood isn’t a proven therapy against Ebola, the World Health Organization urged in September it be used as an experimental treatment. Survivors develop antibodies that recognize the virus and, in theory, donating some to a sick patient may help fight the disease.
One of the things people can do is to support the Center for Disease Prevention (CDC). Donations to the CDC Foundation helps the CDC in its real-time response to the epidemic while enhancing disease surveillance and response in these countries going forward. Just two weeks after Kent Brantly, the first person to be treated on U.S. soil for Ebola, walked out of Emory University Hospital cured of the deadly virus, he received a call that another doctor, Rick Sacra, was infected. Brantly was asked if he would be willing to donate some of his blood.
“I would give Rick Sacra my right arm if it would help him,” Brantly told reporters at an event in North Carolina.
This paranoia that is causing us all to fear as if the apocalypse has arrived should stop. People should research a little bit more about where the Ebola cases are before segregating everyone coming from Africa. And while some western African regions are becoming Ebola epicenters, let’s not forget that medical technologies are being developed, and that the international community has already put in places strategies to stop this deadly disease.