Since the latest Ebola outbreak began in March, there have been more than 2,100 reported cases and 1,145 deaths, according to the World Health Organization.
This is already by far the most serious Ebola outbreak in recorded history.
But the disease isn’t some super-virus that is spreading through the air and infecting anyone who comes close. The only way it can be spread is through bodily fluids- getting the blood or vomit of a sick person in your eyes, nose, or mouth, or in an open wound.
So it’s actually relatively difficult to contract the disease, if you understand how it spreads. But the problem is that almost everyone who’s becoming infected now does not know how Ebola spreads.
That’s one of the reasons it has spread so fast. You see, an Ebola victim is most infectious right after they die. This is because they have very high-levels of the virus in their blood at that point.
Also, the total destruction of their immune system causes them to start leaking blood from every pore in their body (this is why Ebola is called “hemorrhagic fever”). These secretions cover the skin of the deceased with a thin film containing high concentrations of the virus.
So when the families of victims preform their traditional burial practices, which include kissing and touching the body of the deceased, they give Ebola by far its best opportunity to spread.
This lack of knowledge about how the disease spreads has also caused people to become distrusting of the medical facilities that treat Ebola patients.
“People have no idea how infectious diseases work. They see people go into the hospital sick and come out dead—or never come out at all… They think if they can avoid the hospital they can survive,”
says Dr. Terry O’Sullivan, director of the Center for Emergency Management and Homeland Security Policy Research (an American agency that has been aiding in the battle against Ebola).
When Uganda tried to stop the spread of the virus by preventing relatives from seeing their dead family members, it sparked a great deal of hostility and fear.
A rumor spread that the bodies were being kept for nefarious purposes, making the public even more distrusting of foreign health workers (some people believe the foreign health workers were actually the ones who brought the disease to Africa).
When Uganda tried to alleviate the problem by creating a mass graveyard where relatives could see (but not touch) their deceased loved ones, pandemonium broke out.
Villagers ran from the ambulances that transported them there, attacking humanitarian workers and attempting to burn down the hospital. As the Daily Beast’s Abby Haglage put it,
“They feared the disease—but they feared the medicine even more, as well as the people delivering it.”
Yesterday evening, this ignorance manifested itself again when a quarantine center for suspected Ebola patients in West Point, a slum in Liberia’s capital city of Monrovia, was attacked and looted by protesters.
The protesters were unhappy that patients were being brought into their community from other parts of the capital, and some even believed that the whole Ebola outbreak was a hoax used to take advantage of them.
20 suspected Ebola patients who were being monitored for symptoms left the center during the attacks, but the real danger comes from the blood-stained sheets and mattresses that were looted by the protesters.
A senior police official in the area expressed worry that the looting spree could spread the virus all over West Point, an area that is home to about 50,000 people, almost all of which live in serious poverty and lack basic health resources.
He called the attack,
“…one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in my life.”
I understand his frustration, but his comment should make us ask ourselves the following question: where did this stupidity come from?
Stupidity is simply a lack of knowledge.
Consider this: in the three countries that have been hit the hardest by this outbreak (Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia), literacy rates are between 35% and 45%.
Also, keep in mind that the vast majority of these literate people live in the major cities. In the rural areas, where the disease has really been spreading, literacy rates can be as low as 10%.
What we need to understand about this outbreak is that if we would have invested in educating these people 20 years ago, we would not be spending exorbitant amounts of money now in an attempt to stop a disease whose primary victims don’t even understand how it spreads.
Also, the increased education levels would have probably led to a lot more local people becoming health workers.
Not only would there have been more health workers to deal with the outbreak, but a much larger portion of them would’ve been natives with the trust of the locals, rather than foreign workers who most locals are suspicious of.
The bottom line is that education is the answer to almost every problem in the world. Why? Because it gives people the ability to solve their own problems.
- Kissing the Corpses in Ebola Country (The Daily Beast)
- Ebola crisis: Protesters attack Liberia quarantine centre (BBC)
- What You Need to Know About the Ebola Outbreak (New York Times)