Preventing an epidemic: Lessons learned from Ebola

Zika, Ebola, MERS and Swine Flu – these viruses have captured international attention in recent years as part of an apparent surge in epidemics. The struggle to contain Ebola last year shifted the focus towards the developing world’s broken health-care systems and their seeming inability to effectively cope with the increasing demands placed upon them. The rise in viruses of this calibre is due to a multitude of factors including (but not limited to) human overpopulation, increased global travel, and climate change. These factors enable disease vectors, such as mosquitoes and ticks, to thrive and be transported across the globe to areas where little or no immunity exists.

Effective tackling of pandemics requires good surveillance,  strong health systems and, crucially, a swift response. The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) declaration that Zika constitutes a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) will hopefully accelerate the latter. However, there are other lessons from Ebola that, if not applied to Zika, could render the declaration futile.

“While many lessons from Ebola apply to Zika, it is essential to remember that these are different diseases and must be treated as such”

The first is the control of misinformation. During outbreaks panic rapidly ensues if no accurate information is passed down. This can lead to conspiracy theories, a false sense of security, or, conversely, dangerous and ultimately futile ‘prevention’ measures, such as the consumption of salty-water to prevent Ebola. Fear is another dangerous side effect of labelling diseases PHEIC, as aversion behaviour becomes a common response by individuals and nations, with certain states preemptively closing their borders and mistakenly marginalising parts of their society under the guise of containment. After the outbreak of Ebola in 2015, 34 countries enacted trade and travel restrictions, despite those restrictions contradicting WHO guidelines. In doing this, these nations disrupted containment efforts and worked to further the economic hardship placed upon the affected countries.

Considering the 2016 Olympics are just  around the corner, the lessons learned from last year are likely to be of significance when attempting to contain the Zika virus. Whilst Brazil is in a stronger position with regards to infrastructure and surveillance, something as simple as an emergency control centre – like the one opened in Nigeria following their outbreak last year – could facilitate a coordinated response between Zika-affected areas. While many lessons from Ebola apply to Zika, it is essential to remember that these are different diseases and must be treated as such. Zika is mosquito-borne and therefore has unique challenges when attempting to break the transmission chain. Additionly, the isolation of infected people is difficult due to the mild and ambiguous nature of initial symptoms.

In hindsight, it is clear to see that developed countries across the globe should have done more to strengthen West Africa’s health care infrastructure in response to the Ebola outbreak. It is unclear however if the developed world’s commitment to containment and treatment has petered in recent months. Like Ebola, Zika teaches us that neglected tropical diseases are no longer a problem restricted to developing countries; we have a vested interest due to the highly globalised nature of the world in which we live. However, there is a crucial need to stop being reactive and instead consider the choices made in between outbreaks to avoid future global pandemics.

Image: UN

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