Disasters and Diseases: A Severable Link?
Amidst the chaos of the world’s efforts to battle West Africa’s now-devastating Ebola outbreak stands the often overlooked but ever-growing threat regarding the “collapse” of the three countries (Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone) hit hardest by the virus. “We were just bringing back hope and life when we were struck by Ebola,” Liberian Information Minister Lewis Brown stated. “It is having terrible consequences for every aspect of our national existence.”
The current outbreak may not have been caused by a natural disaster specifically, but its defiant spread across an entire region can nonetheless be attributed to circumstances very similar to those following such a devastating occurrence. According to Brown, referencing Liberia’s costly war twelve years ago, the country experienced “a 90 per cent collapse in the productive sector of our economy, we were rebuilding and our health infrastructure was not what it should have been,” later stating that “only around 40 per cent of the country’s healthcare facilities were functioning.”
This was obviously a recipe for disaster and for many developing countries, not an uncommon one. In these poorer nations, the disasters themselves are just the beginning: struggling infrastructures, inadequate housing and limited healthcare provisions all become instantly exacerbated following deadly disasters, creating entirely new emergencies requiring levels of urgency these countries are often unable to meet, especially in the effort to halt the spread of disease.
According to the medical journal, Emerging Infectious Diseases, “the risk factors for outbreaks after disasters are associated primarily with population displacement. The availability of safe water and sanitation facilities, the degree of crowding, the underlying health status of the population, and the availability of healthcare services all interact within the context of the local disease ecology to influence the risk for communicable diseases and death in the affected population.” As survivors often face little choice but to be herded together, they subsequently face the severe risk of exposure to various contagions and diseases, with their health more dependent than ever on the hygienic habits of the population, the ability of relief efforts to provide basic necessities such as clean drinking water. Furthermore, vaccine programs in areas experiencing power outages become not just unable to immunize citizens, but also maintain the cold chain, potentially resulting in unusable vaccines and health supplies.
Fortunately, as the journal is quick to point out, disease outbreaks following disasters typically occur only in areas in which major population displacement occurs. While not a guaranteed consequence, the risk is a looming presence over every country ill-prepared to handle the indifferent devastation of an unexpected storm, flood, or earthquake. In recent years however, global efforts to provide quick relief following these massive crises has become a small beacon of hope for many of these parts of the world most at risk. But until each nation does their part to prevent the further spread of disaster following a disaster, there remains the ongoing chance that when it rains, it will pour.