It began with people leaving homes in Liberia to seek better care or reunite with families back in Guinea, a pattern repeating itself all over.
“Currently in Guinea, all the new cases, all the new epidemic, are linked to people who are coming back from Liberia or from Sierra Leone,” said Marc Poncin, the emergency coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Guinea.
The epidemic also has touched Nigeria and Senegal while killing more than 2,000 people across West Africa. Never before has the disease struck such a densely populated region, where so many people are on the move. For four decades, the virus struck in relatively remote areas, where doctors could quickly isolate communities and stop its spread.
In previous outbreaks, a cleared pocket like Macenta would be easy to keep clear.
This time, the virus is traveling effortlessly across borders by plane, car and foot, shifting from forests to cities and springing up in clusters far from any previously known infections. Border closures, flight bans and mass quarantines have been ineffective.
“Everything we do is too small and too late,” said Poncin. “We’re always running after the epidemic.”
Ebola has been able to follow its own course because West Africa lacks the health care workers it needs to monitor potential carriers and train communities in how to avoid catching the disease. People in contact with the sick have evaded surveillance, moving at will and hiding their illnesses until they infect others in turn. Whole villages, stricken by fear, have repeatedly shut themselves off for days or weeks, giving the virus more opportunities to whip around and skip someplace else.
Dr. Peter Piot, who co-discovered Ebola, said Ebola isn’t striking in a “linear fashion” this time. It’s hopping around, especially in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone.
“The epidemic is now so vast and so extensive that one should consider that in the three (hardest-hit) countries, everybody is now at risk and it won’t be over until the last case has survived and six weeks have passed,” said Piot, who runs London’s School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
A couple of thoughts:
- The New Yorker recently published a short item on the economics of Ebola. It did not touch on the politics of the 70s that forced the African continent to live with the virus rather than find a cure for it.
- It appears the 70’s Ebola strain has mutated and unfortunately there will soon be too much time to rehash our past sins; given the difference in cheap travel made available to the world’s populace in the intervening 40 years, it is a certainty this outbreak will become an epidemic, perhaps killing tens of thousands and even touching on our shores. If so the only question is whether the multi-national drug companies find a cure/vaccine before the virus becomes a pandemic that kills millions.