An Unnecessary Plague

Why Ebola Vaccines Don't Reach the People Who Need Them

A scientist tests blood for Ebola at the European Mobile Laboratory in Gueckedou, Guinea April 3, 2014.
A scientist tests blood for Ebola at the European Mobile Laboratory in Gueckedou, Guinea, April 3, 2014. (Misha Hussain / Courtesy Reuters)

The patient zero for the latest outbreak of the Ebola virus is believed to have been a person in a remote, mountainous area in southern Guinea, a country with just one doctor per 10,000 people. Experts believe that he or she contracted the virus by eating bush meat (likely fruit bats, which are considered a delicacy in the region), died, and then passed the virus at the funeral, where mourners traditionally touch the deceased body before its burial. By March, the highly contagious disease, which is transmittable by any bodily fluid, had made its way to the capital, Conakry, prompting panic among the city’s two million residents. Since then, the disease has spread to neighboring Liberia, with additional cases suspected in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and Mali. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that this latest outbreak has already claimed more than 100 lives.

Any outbreak of Ebola -- whose symptoms include high fever, debilitating fatigue, and uncontrollable bleeding from the eyes, the nose, and the mouth -- is highly distressing for those afflicted. Suspected and confirmed patients are usually put into isolation wards and treated by doctors who wear plastic jumpsuits, despite central Africa’s extreme heat. “It’s a difficult place to work, but much more difficult to be a patient,” said Henry Gray, an emergency coordinator with the NGO Medecins sans Frontières who has been working on front lines of the outbreak in Conakry. Even in death, its victims can suffer indignity: they are often denied ritual burials, and are instead buried in isolation, after disinfection, by medical workers.

What’s particularly disturbing about the present crisis, however, is that some infections could have been prevented. For years, the United States has been developing preventatives and treatments for Ebola, which would both provide defense if Ebola were used in warfare and reduce the spread of an outbreak of the disease. But, despite lobbying from scientists amid this latest outbreak, the drugs have not been put to the test. 

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