“Experimental drugs and airport screenings will do nothing to stop this plague. If Ebola hits Lagos, we’re in real trouble,” warns Pulitzer-prize winning writer of The Coming Plague, Laurie Garrett
August 2014 – AFRICA – Attention World: You just don’t get it. You think there are magic bullets in some rich country’s freezers that will instantly stop the relentless spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa? You think airport security guards in Los Angeles can look a traveler in the eyes and see infection, blocking that jet passenger’s entry into La-la-land? You believe novelist Dan Brown’s utterly absurd description of a World Health Organization that has a private C5-A military transport jet and disease SWAT team that can swoop into outbreaks, saving the world from contagion? Wake up, fools. What’s going on in West Africa now isn’t Brown’s silly Inferno scenario — it’s Steven Soderberg’s movie Contagion, though without a modicum of its high-tech capacity. Last week, my brilliant Council on Foreign Relations colleague John Campbell, former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria, warned that spread of the virus inside Lagos — which has a population of 22 million — would instantly transform this situation into a worldwide crisis, thanks to the chaos, size, density, and mobility of not only that city but dozens of others in the enormous, oil-rich nation. Add to the Nigerian scenario civil war, national elections, Boko Haram terrorists, and a country-wide doctors’ strike — all of which are real and current — and you have a scenario so overwrought and frightening that I could not have concocted it even when I advised screenwriter Scott Burns on his Contagion script. Inside the United States, politicians, gadflies, and much of the media are focused on wildly experimental drugs and vaccines, and equally wild notions of “keeping the virus out” by barring travelers and “screening at airports.”
Let’s be clear: Absolutely no drug or vaccine has been proven effective against the Ebola virus in human beings. To date, only one person — Dr. Kent Brantly — has apparently recovered after receiving one of the three prominent putative drugs, and there is no proof that the drug was key to his improvement. None of the potential vaccines has even undergone Phase One safety trials in humans, though at least two are scheduled to enter that stage before December of this year. And Phase One is the swiftest, easiest part of new vaccine trials — the two stages of clinical trials aimed at proving that vaccines actually work will be difficult, if not impossible, to ethically and safely execute. If one of the vaccines is ready to be used in Africa sometime in 2015, the measure will be executed without prior evidence that it can work, which in turn will require massive public education to ensure that people who receive the vaccination do not change their behaviors in ways that might put them in contract with Ebola — because they mistakenly believe they are immune to the virus. We are in for a very long haul with this extremely deadly disease — it has killed more than 50 percent of those laboratory-confirmed infections, and possibly more than 70 percent of the infected populations of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. Nigeria is struggling to ensure that no secondary spread of Ebola comes from one of the people already infected by Liberian traveler Patrick Sawyer — two of whom have died so far. That effort expanded on Wednesday, when Nigerian health authorities announced that a nurse who had treated Sawyer escaped her quarantine confinement in Lagos and traveled to Enugu a city that, as of 2006, has a population of about three million. Though the nurse has not shown symptoms of the disease, the incubation time for infection, which is up to 21 days, hasn’t elapsed.
Since the Ebola outbreak began in March there have been many reports of isolated cases of the disease in travelers to other countries. None have resulted, so far, in secondary spread, establishing new epidemic focuses of the disease. As I write this, such a case is thought to have occurred Johannesburg, South Africa’s largest city, and another suspected case reportedly died in isolation in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, prompting the kingdom to issue special Ebola warnings for the upcoming hajj. It’s only a matter of time before one of these isolated cases spreads, possibly in a chaotic urban center far larger than the ones in which it is now claiming lives: Conakry, Guinea; Monrovia, Liberia; and Freetown, Sierra Leone. So what does “getting it” mean for understanding what we, as a global community, must now do? First of all, we must appreciate the scale of need on the ground in the three Ebola-plagued nations. While the people may pray for magic bullets, their health providers are not working in Hollywood, but rather in some of the most impoverished places on Earth. Before Ebola, these countries spent less than $100 per year per capita on healthcare. Most Americans spend more than that annually on aspirin and ibuprofen. “It’s like fighting a forest fire: leave behind one burning ember, one case undetected, and the epidemic could re-ignite,” Frieden recently told Congress. “Ending this outbreak will take time, at least three to six months in a best case scenario, but this is very far from a best case scenario.”At the same congressional hearing Dr. Frank Glover, a medical missionary who partners with SIM, a Christian missions organization, and president of SHIELD, a U.S.-based NGO in Africa, warned that Liberia had less than 200 doctors struggling to meet the health needs of 4 million people before the epidemic. “After the outbreak that number went down to about 50 doctors involved in clinical care,” said Glover. I myself have received emails from physicians in these countries, describing the complete collapse of all non-Ebola care, from unassisted deliveries to untended auto accident injuries. People aren’t just dying of the virus, but from every imaginable medical issue a system of care usually faces. –Foreign Policy