There has been little press in the U.S. about the current Ebola virus outbreak in Western Africa. The BBC just posted an excellent story that can be accessed at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-28505061, There were some alarming facts in this story. The first one is that a man was able to board a plane to Nigeria, but died in the airport in Lagos, Nigeria’s capital. Nigerian officials have assured the press that the man did not come into contact with the “general public.” What about the people who were cooped up in the plane with him? I don’t know how long it takes to fly from Monrovia, Liberia to Lagos, Nigeria, but the fact that a man, near unto death, was able to board a plane out of this Ebola hot-spot is alarming to me.
That brings me to my second concern. The article stated that the incubation period for the Ebola virus could be as long as 21 days. My previous understanding was that the incubation period of Ebola was extremely short, and that’s what was preventing it from becoming a global outbreak. After exposure, supposedly, the victims became ill quickly and would thus become too ill to travel far and spread the disease. In a little factoid section, they mention this incubation period under a bullet point, without naming any source of their information. Is this from the World Health Organization (WHO)? Is it from the Center for Diseases Control (CDC)? Such a long incubation period means that somebody, recently exposed, could possibly board a flight from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone and take a plane to Lagos, from there to London, Rome, the Middle East- just about anywhere. This person could then get off the plane, go to his destination, become symptomatic after arrival and spread the disease far and wide.
As a survivor of the AIDS plague, I can see how a long incubation period for a virus can facilitate its dissemination through a large population. Of course, the AIDS virus is a retrovirus and can hide in the body for years before emerging to wreak its havoc. The incubation period for measles is ten days. Look how quickly it spreads among a group of nonimmunized populations. Of course, the spread of these viruses are caused by different mechanisms, but let me emphasize one cogent point. There is a vaccine for German measles. There is no vaccine for Ebola.
I’m not saying that Ebola is going to become a pandemic; however, it is already an epidemic. If it’s not Ebola, you can expect an emergent disease to come from other parts of the world. Remember the SAARS outbreak in Asia? Luckily, Asia has become technologically and economically strong enough (for the most part) to respond quickly to a potential epidemiological disaster. But what about Africa? Exploited, fractured, gigantic, over-populated, continent that has been the kicking boy of Western Europe and the U.S. for centuries, it is. Of all the failed nations in the world, how many of them are African? Let’s see: there’s Somalia, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan. Then there are the countries, like Guinea, that are on the brink of collapse. I get this list of countries from the List of Fragile States Index, as published by the United States think-tank Fund for Peace. You can find them at http://fundforpeace.org.
The take-home messages of this post is that if Ebola does turn out to have a long incubation period, it will spread beyond Africa. The second point is that, if it’s not Ebola, it will be something else. It may not come from Africa. It might emerge in the U.S. or Canada. The fact of the matter is that there is a plague coming. The last pandemic was a little less than a hundred years ago. It was called the Spanish Influenza. Some say it may have broken out in France. Others say it broke out in Kansas. Conditions were ripe for this virus to spread across the globe. There was a global war going on and soldiers were the primary vectors. This pandemic is estimated to have killed between 3 to 6 percent of the world’s population and had a mortality rate of 20 percent. (Taubenberger, J., Morens, M. (2006). “1918 Influenza Pandemic”. CDC EID. Archived from the original on 1 October 2009. Retrieved 14 May 2009.)
Before the investment of massive funds, AIDS was a death sentence. It had a mortality rate of 100%. Now it is a disease, much akin to diabetes, that is chronic, but manageable. Still, there is no vaccine. And people keep catching it. I would respectfully suggest that the CDC and WHO, academic institution all over the world, and governmental agencies like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) invest in research of this terrible virus that is causing so much suffering in Africa. I don’t know how much the U.S. Department of Homeland Security devotes to the study of how to respond to an epidemiological disaster, but I seriously doubt it’s adequate, given their obsession with international terrorists and immigrant children trying to cross our boarder.
Only the most agoraphobic person is isolated from the possible contagion of a disease from another person. It could be the shop clerk who takes your money. It could be the new neighbor that you meet and shake hands with. It could be the waiter who brings you your food at a restaurant. Humans are social creatures and they like to interact with each other. That’s why we make such excellent hosts for viruses. From sexually transmitted diseases to the common cold, viruses that plague humanity prey on the very essence of our humanity. That’s why they succeed and that is why they should be feared.