West Africa

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, gives this year’s LaMontagne lecture Monday afternoon at the Touchdown Club in Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Fauci’s talk, which the University’s Center for Infectious Disease sponsored, addressed the Ebola outbreak that occurred this past year in Western Africa.
Photo Credit: Ethan Black | Daily Texan Staff

The 2014 Ebola outbreak should not be a reason to isolate infected regions, such as West Africa, according to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who spoke at the University on Monday. 

“[The outbreak] is a wake-up call to eliminate disparities in health-care resources across the world,” Fauci said.

There have been more than 22,000 total cases of Ebola in West Africa, with approximately 9,000 of them resulting in death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fauci said the outbreak can be attributed to the limited health care structure in West Africa. There is one physician for every 70,000 people in West Africa, according to Fauci.

“There are more doctors in one building in Washington D.C., than in the entire region of West Africa,” Fauci said.

Ebola is spread through bodily fluids, such as vomit or blood. The history of regional conflict in West Africa and lack of trust between citizens and public officials contributed significantly to the outbreak, Fauci said.

“How do you control the Ebola outbreak when no one trusts anybody?” Fauci said.

People do not have to be alive to spread the Ebola virus, according to Fauci.  

“Many of the Ebola infections were spread through burial procedures, since they involve a lot of touching and caressing from family members,” said Fauci.

Native B-cells, which are responsible for developing antibodies, are one of the body’s first lines of defense, according to engineering professor George Georgiou. In response to infectious diseases, such as Ebola, antibodies can adapt to match a specific strain of the virus, according to Georgiou.

“The miracle happens when the presence of infectious agents allows the antibodies to evolve,” Georgiou said.

The University’s Center for Infectious Disease held the lecture. Center director Dr. Marvin Whiteley said the Center aims to address and conduct research on infectious diseases, including Ebola.

“Infectious disease is the second leading cause of death around the world,” Whiteley said.

Fauci said better treatments are needed to deal with the Ebola virus.

“None of [the treatments] have been proven to work since the treatments are not occurring in a controlled environment,” said Fauci.

Ebola has potential to remain an infectious disease, according to Fauci.

“It ain’t over till it’s over,” Fauci said.

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.

In this podcast, Anthony Green and Madlin Mekelburg discuss the reinstatement of the controversial state voter ID law, the impending launch of Google Fiber in Austin and the ongoing Ebola epidemic in West Africa as well as the two Dallas health care workers who have tested positive for the virus. They are joined by crime reporter Natalie Sullivan to discuss this week in crime and Austin’s stricter implementation of the city’s sound ordinances.  

Photo Credit: Albert Lee | Daily Texan Staff

For all the talk about globalization, most Americans still think in very local ways. We generally ignore distant problems that we cannot see, and then we overreact when they arrive at our shores. Overnight, the ignored and unseen becomes an obsessive and all-consuming public fear. Once the foreign threat emerges as a domestic problem, Americans assume that overweening power is necessary to prevent a recurrence.  

Few Americans thought about Afghanistan or al-Qaeda until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In response, Americans quickly reversed their apathy and turned the fight against foreign terrorism into a generational calling, sending our soldiers around the globe while restricting constitutional protections for privacy and due process at home. Many historians would now say that the United States starved its domestic needs (in education, infrastructure and economic development) as it spent its resources in Iraq, Afghanistan and other regions that remain dominated by terrorists. The excesses of military intervention have, at least in part, weakened the United States and made the terrorist threat worse throughout the Middle East.

The same dynamic of apathy and overreaction dominates the current discussion of Ebola. Formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, the disease is a virus that first arose in wild animals and then spread to human populations in Central Africa during the 1970s. The virus remained rare until 2014, when medical professionals reported a new outbreak in West Africa, starting in Guinea and then spreading to Sierra Leone and Liberia. During the summer of 2014 the director of the World Health Organization declared Ebola a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.”

American citizens barely noticed, and our government did little in response. During the summer of 2014 medical experts from around the world decried the absence of serious international efforts to send large-scale assistance to poor West African health institutions unable to grapple with the spread of the deadly virus. Ebola is not airborne; it is transmitted through bodily fluids. Diagnosing and separating Ebola sufferers from others is an essential mechanism for stopping its spread. Without sufficient help, the weak governments in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were unable to maintain patient quarantines. 

Little about this story appeared relevant to Americans until the first Ebola sufferer arrived in the United States, from Liberia, on Sept. 19. The diagnosis of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas 10 days later, and his subsequent death, made the threat of the virus real to Americans. A nurse who cared for Duncan has tested positive for Ebola despite wearing protective gear, highlighting the risks of contagion.

As one would expect, panic has begun to pervade public discussion. Major news media warn of a pandemic spreading across the United States. Mayors and governors call for special task forces to protect the public. U.S. customs officials have begun to examine visitors coming from West Africa for evidence of Ebola. The pressures to separate people suspicious of carrying the virus, even if there is little evidence, will surely build in coming weeks. A few new cases in the United States, Canada and Europe could contribute to increased public panic.

Precautions within the United States make good sense. Readiness requires provisions for separating and treating sufferers before they infect others. Quick and accurate diagnoses are necessary, followed by clear procedures for quarantine and hospitalization. Officials in Dallas were not ready for the first case, but federal, state and city governments must now work together to prepare for future patients.

Luckily, medical experts do not expect the virus to spread throughout the United States. It is, in fact, not very contagious where basic sanitary conditions and precautions are maintained. With proper knowledge, American health institutions have the resources to separate and treat sufferers, preventing further infections. Public panic is understandable, but it is a predictable exaggeration of the domestic threat.

The real danger is that the focus on risks within the United States will further diminish attention to the sources of the current virus in West Africa. That is where it began its recent spread, and that is where it threatens whole communities. It is not the citizens traveling from West Africa who are the threat; it is the continued infection of people there that causes mass suffering and creates growing international dangers. 

Americans must protect themselves by thinking in balanced global terms. We cannot afford to ignore the Ebola crisis in West Africa, but we cannot solve the problem alone. The time has come for us to step forward and lead a large multinational effort to bring needed health assistance to the region. That includes basic resources for diagnoses, treatments and quarantines. It means working closely with local officials as partners. Most of all, it requires us to open our eyes and recognize that the health of our citizens is dependent on the health of others far away. If they understand this and refuse to ignore distant troubles, young Americans have the opportunity to become the global leaders our world so desperately needs.  

Suri is a professor in the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Department of History.