Ebola crisis exposes medical ignorance at home and abroad


A police car drives past the entrance to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Sept. 30, 2014. 
A police car drives past the entrance to the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Sept. 30, 2014. 

This year, close to 5,000 people in West Africa have been killed by an outbreak of Ebola, out of roughly 10,000 who have contracted the disease. Meanwhile, in the U.S., Ebola has killed one person and infected three. But while there’s an enormous difference in scope between the virus’s impact in Africa and its impact here, too many people in both regions have one thing in common: They have no idea what Ebola is or how to fight it.

In Guinea, eight aid workers attempting to treat Ebola patients were killed last month by villagers who objected to the presence of doctors in their communities. In Liberia, hospitals are routinely attacked by those looking to free their loved ones from the supposed evils of modern medicine. And across the region, healthy civilians put themselves at risk by coming into contact with victims without taking any safety precautions. This sort of ignorance, more than anything else, has exacerbated the spread of the disease

In contrast, Ebola has caused undue panic across the U.S. among both civilians and political leaders. A small college in Texas recently rejected all applicants from Nigeria on the grounds that they might carry Ebola, and workers across the country are being suspended from their jobs just for travelling to Africa. President Barack Obama recently announced plans to send combat troops to West Africa to curb the pandemic, and Texas Governor Rick Perry has called for a travel ban from regions in which the disease is prevalent.

None of these measures will do anything to fight the epidemic. Military personnel lack the medical and diplomatic expertise necessary to disseminate medical information to regional officials or tribal chieftains. A travel ban would upset local economies, and thus political stability, without doing a whole lot to keep Ebola out of the America — given that the disease has spread to Spain, it could enter the U.S. through any number of other developed countries.

If the U.S. wants to stop the spread of Ebola, it needs to fund and equip grassroots organizations that can engender enough trust within rural African communities to adequately disseminate safety information. Although the outbreak in Africa and the paranoia in the U.S. seem to indicate otherwise, Ebola is a very preventable illness. The virus only spreads through direct exposure to infected bodily fluids, and it can be killed more or less instantaneously by soap, hand sanitizer, chlorine or exposure to sunlight. The best way to fight the disease, then, is through basic education. If information on how to prevent Ebola were widely known in West Africa, civilians would understand how best to change their habits. If it were widely known in America, civilians would understand why not to change their habits at all.

The fact that those who are at the greatest risk of contracting Ebola often refuse to take basic precautions to prevent the disease speaks volumes about the lack of health education in the developing world. But America’s overreaction to the virus highlights that the U.S. also has a long way to go when it comes to turning medical advice into common knowledge.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government, and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut.