By Peter Bjel.
Several West African states are facing what may turn out to be the deadliest epidemic in recent history. In a region scarred by years of vicious civil war and political instability—not to mention another slower but no less fatal disease, HIV/AIDS—the Ebola epidemic of 2014 stands to wreak equal havoc. It has not only put tens of thousands of lives at risk but has also exposed the helplessness of the international community to address such a fast-spreading disease.
On September 17, some six months after Ebola appeared in Guinea and later spread to Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone, U.S. President Barack Obama declared the disease to be “a threat to global security”. The worsening outbreak could lead to “profound political, economic and security implications for all of us”. The U.S., said Obama, will now play a broader role in combatting the disease, deploying 3,000 troops to assist in relief efforts. Washington’s role will involve the building of healthcare facilities, the training of healthcare workers, providing home health care kits to local households, as well as the development of an air bridge to ensure the faster delivery of supplies into the region.
Earlier in September, doctors and biologists began to seek out a potential vaccine that could be used to combat the current outbreaks. Limited trials of the vaccine began on humans after the U.S. National Institutes of Health found that a genetically modified chimp virus containing some of the Zaire Ebola species had protected macaques (a type of monkey) for ten months. The World Health Organization (WHO) expressed cautious optimism, reporting that safety information on the vaccine would not be available until November of this year, whereupon it could then be used in Africa.
Earlier, in August, the WHO controversially endorsed the use of an experimental drug, known as ZMapp, on American Ebola patients that had been transported to the U.S. for treatment. Though not yet past clinical trials, the drug was said to show “early promise” in fighting the virus. These new vaccines might be used advantageously in the struggle against what has become the worst instance of Ebola in the disease’s history.
Given the virulent nature of Ebola—and the fact that it has had a mortality rate of up to 90 percent in the past—the risk of further transmission and more Ebola-related deaths is dire. By late September 2014, the disease had killed more than 3,000 people in West Africa—though such a figure is partial and actual deaths may be much higher. Local health care infrastructures in affected countries have …
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