The outbreak and spread of ebola in West Africa should serve as a warning to Americans. There is no effective vaccine or cure for the virus, which is usually lethal. Its communicable nature and the international transportation links with West Africa make it likely that it will find its way to the United States.
Ebola has been known to the medical community since 1976, when it was first identified as a killer disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then Zaire. Since then, neither African national government health systems nor international bodies, including the World Health Organization, have devoted significant efforts to finding either a vaccine or a cure, even as it raised its ugly head several more times on the continent. African governments’ health care budgets are normally pathetically small, in spite of the considerable wealth of some countries.
This time the disease has emerged in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone, killing at least a thousand persons. Its appearance in Nigeria is perhaps most alarming since Lagos, its largest city, has 20 million people and is perhaps the dirtiest, most crowded and most disorganized city in the world, making it a terrifying breeding ground for a disease such as ebola.
The world is now faced with what could become an ebola epidemic. Both the fact that infection occurs before symptoms show, with the early stages resembling an ordinary cold or flu, and the fact that the world knows that the best care exists in the United States — as seen by the treatment in Atlanta of the two American aid workers who were infected in Africa — the chances of more ebola patients ending up here are strong.
The WHO is correct to declare the West African ebola outbreak an international health emergency and it should do its best to marshal global resources to combat it. Even though an earlier opportunity was missed, funding and expertise should be devoted now to finding a vaccine and a cure. That is something the United States can do.
In the meantime, American health care workers should use their considerable skills and advanced techniques to keep the disease isolated and under control when treating patients for it here.