By Len Maniace
Unlike other world-changing events, the first reports of the current Ebola epidemic are not stamped into memories. For the record, the World Health Organization issued its first public announcement on March 23rd of this year, reporting that a total of 49 people were stricken with Ebola virus disease in Guinea and 29 had died. That was months before the outbreak registered with many in the U.S.
Even more muted was the public introduction of an earlier and profoundly world-changing disease that has killed 36 million people. AIDS was first reported on June 5, 1981, in a publication of federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It described five previously healthy young men in Los Angeles who were mysteriously stricken with Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, an ailment that occurs almost exclusively in people with severely suppressed immune systems. Two had died.
That is the nature of such outbreaks. They start small, sometimes in far away places. Most times they are brought under control before threatening people too far from where they started. Ebola outbreaks were like that once. The first killed 280 people during a 1976 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The toll taken in any of the next 23 never matched that figure number. The current outbreak is different though. By mid-October it killed nearly 4,500, according to WHO, and the epidemic shows no sign of abating.
We all hope that mobilization of more doctors, nurses, equipment and expertise, will turn the tide against Ebola soon. Even so, this outbreak is likely to finally confirm the notion that the nature of infectious disease has changed and that AIDS was not just a freak virus that evaded our capabilities. We no longer live in an era when antibiotics and distance were enough to protect us from most infectious disease.
That was the thesis of Laurie Garrett’s 1994 book, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance. Global air travel, wars, changing social mores, and environmental destruction have allowed deadly viruses once confined to wild animals – and a few unlucky humans who came in contact with them – to reach a worldwide population.
No doubt preventive measures have improved since that book was published. But as the recent spread of Ebola to health workers in the U.S. and in Spain shows, these measures are likely not enough – or aren’t being strictly followed. The full extent of these shortcomings, we will learn soon. And beyond our borders is West Africa where, health officials agree, medical care will need to be greatly improved to defeat Ebola. Attention must be paid: When it comes to infectious disease, there is no such thing as Fortress America; we ignore these outbreaks in seemingly far away places at our own peril.