A Flicker of Hope for the Ebola Outbreak
He stood under his own power, looking happy, relieved, dressed in a blue button up shirt, in stark contrast to the white, hazardous materials suit covering him from head to toe upon his arrival at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital, as perhaps the Ebola outbreak’s most high-profile patient. Though his thinned frame reflected his grueling, now-conquered ordeal, optimism and hope permeated his words, as he asked his audience to, “Please continue to pray for Liberia and the people of West Africa, and encourage those in positions of leadership and influence to do everything possible to bring this Ebola outbreak to an end.” Then, Dr. Kent Brantley turned and hugged each member of the medical team responsible for his recovery.
Though the gesture was of course a demonstration of sincere gratitude on the part of Brantley, for the rest of the world this display of physical affection is part of the crucial effort to quell the often misunderstood aspects of this year’s Ebola outbreak. In the U.S. a recent Harvard School of Public Health poll revealed that 39 percent of people fear a large outbreak in the country, and 68 percent believe “the disease could spread ‘easily.’” So far in fact, no less than 68 potential Ebola cases have been investigated in the country – all of them negative, of course.
But from where do these irrational fears originate? While some (rather condescendingly) seem to attribute them to simple Hollywood-fostered paranoia, the real answer likely lies in some undeniable truths regarding the outbreak, namely that Ebola is indeed, a terrifying disease. It is an agonizing affliction and this outbreak, by far the biggest on record, is showing few signs of slowing down. Over 1,350 people have died out of (a likely underreported) 2,473 cases, denoting a mortality rate of over 50%. And while some researchers are scrambling to produce drug treatments, currently no vaccine or guaranteed cure exists. Doctors even remain unsure on the effectiveness of the ZMapp drug given to the two American patients, even failing to rule out its possibility as a hindrance to their recovery.
Despite the plethora of chilling numbers and facts regarding the outbreak however, a global pandemic in the making, Ebola is not. “This is not a ‘Typhoid Mary’ type situation,” said CNN’s Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “Ebola is not highly contagious, but it is highly infectious. That means when a person becomes ill, they start to shed the virus in their bodily fluids. And when even a small amount of that fluid gets into a break in somebody’s skin, that can cause an infection. But keep in mind, again, it is only a sick person that is shedding the virus, somebody who is often in bed, or in a hospital, and not up and around.” In short, Ebola is not an airborne contagion, such as the flu, and is therefore severely limited in its capability to spread. The West African outbreak is due as much to poor sanitation, lack of adequate medical supplies, and skepticism of Western medicine, as it is to any characteristic of the disease itself. In the event of an American outbreak, these factors would not present any realistically major threat in curtailing medical relief and treatment efforts (if the virus managed to spread at all), which, while comforting for this country, offers no solace to the already chaotic and disease-ridden region of West Africa.
Fortunately, the successful treatment of the two American patients, Dr. Brantley and aid worker Nancy Writebol, has offered a glimmer of hope for the outbreak. There may be a lack of consensus regarding the use of experimental drugs, but “the treatment of these two Americans may already lead to better care for Ebola patients anywhere. For example, their doctors now believe common fluid-replacement measures may need more nutrients to help patients recover. Emory’s team has begun sharing its findings with other doctors, and hopes to publish in a medical journal” – not exactly a definite cure, but a sure sign of progress in what remains an uphill battle in an area of the world that seems to suffer nothing else.