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A look at the ebola epidemic as the looming threat that never was

Pinterest Computer illustration of an Ebola virus particle. The hotter the jungle and the planet becomes as a result of all this deforestation, the happier mosquitoes are. Those that are not extinct may have migrated to more northerly realms that are rapidly becoming more hospitable, thanks to global climate change. On any given day, millions of people around the world are moving around on planes, trains, boats, trucks and automobiles, some from places where undiscovered viruses are festering in the bloodstreams of wild beasts and fowls.

An average of 10 million people a day take to the skies; 3. All this creates huge opportunities for the transcontinental spread of pathogens such as SarsEbola or Zika. And the duration of the longest intercontinental flights is now greater than the incubation period of several common pathogens.

A person may be asymptomatic when they get on a jumbo jet in Hong Kong, but by the time they land in New York they will have spread the virus to the crew and passengers. In the case of Aids, the virus spread slowly at first. Then, as Africa became more urbanised and roads connected remote regions to cities, men went to the cities to look for work.

Those men hooked up with infected prostitutes who spread the virus to clients. Disease travels especially fast in west Africa, where the population is highly mobile.

People move around a lot to look for work or food or to visit extended family members across borders. Also, sick people will travel to countries that have the resources to treat them when their own countries do not. One sick individual crossing a border to seek a cure could start a wave of new infections across a country that has all but succeeded in controlling an outbreak.

And like the proverbial butterfly whose beating wings can set off a hurricane somewhere far away, any single human being can do something that sets off catastrophic consequences. People need to have sex; before Aids broke out, thousands spread the disease through unprotected sex, and a few irresponsible ones continued this behaviour even after discovering they had contracted HIV.

Humans hug and kiss: And human beings need to eat: Ebola, Aids and Zika each arose in the first half of the 20th century and spent their first several decades in the African bush, largely unnoticed by the rest of the world.

Are we prepared for the looming epidemic threat?

But they are three very different examples of emerging infectious diseases. And they are just three of nearly 400 new infectious diseases that have been identified in the last 75 years.

Since 1971, scientists have discovered at least 25 new pathogens for which we have no vaccine and no treatment. Even more worrying is the rate at which emerging infectious diseases are appearing: During the 1980s, the number of new infectious diseases rose to nearly 100, reflecting an association with the Aids pandemic.


In 2014, the World Health Organisation recorded more than 100 disease outbreaks. There are seven essential sets of actions if we want to set about ending epidemics.

These seven actions emerged out of in-depth analyses of five epidemics: I chose these five diseases because together they killed more than half a billion people in the last 100 years and because they reflect different types of epidemics.

Lead as though the house is on fire Just as firefighters race into the burning building, those responsible for protecting public health need to act rapidly and on the basis of scientific evidence, not political interests.

Leaders at the highest level must put the public good above parochial interests. Resilient systems, global security Strong national public health systems are the foundations for prevention and preparedness.

National governments, the private sector, communities and faith-based organisations have been enormously successful when they work in concert to fight disease. Robust international agencies and non-governmental organisations are essential to support even the poorest countries in mounting successful defences. Active prevention, constant readiness Epidemics can be stopped by prevention through healthy self-care habits, immunisation and fighting mosquitoes; early detection of disease through surveillance at all levels; and rapid response to treat the sick, prevent the spread and maintain routine health services.

Fatal fictions, timely truths In the face of an epidemic, terror, blame, rumours and conspiracy theories, distrust of authorities and panic can take hold simultaneously. This is why establishing and maintaining trust through honest, clear communication at local level is paramount.

History continues to show us that health communication lies at the heart of epidemic control. Fighting rumour with truth is a job for professional communication teams working with local and national governments, international agencies, communities, print and broadcast media and social media. Disruptive innovation, collaborative transformation We need to do everything we can to support the work of scientists who are applying breakthrough techniques to identify viruses and prevent them from jumping to people, and we must help those who are working to nip outbreaks in the bud.

We need to do better research and development to diagnose illness quickly and treat it immediately. We must discover new vaccines, make more of them and figure out better distribution strategies.

Invest wisely, save lives A worldwide pandemic could cost the economy several trillion dollars. But an ounce of prevention, in terms of money, is truly worth a pound of cure when it comes to stopping epidemics. Ring the alarm, rouse the leaders … with local, national and international voices that track capacity, performance and resources.

This a look at the ebola epidemic as the looming threat that never was a job for citizens and concerned stakeholders. We achieve progress through a combination of good science, strong leadership and committed advocacy.

I vividly remember the debates we had among global health professionals about Aids treatment in 2000 and the sense of achievement we felt in 2010.

During that decade, the unthinkable became reality before our eyes. We know how to stop the next epidemic. This is no excuse for unpreparedness. If we are to save ourselves and our children we must act decisively. The threat is real. The pathway is known. The time for action is now.