The news last week from Atlanta could scarcely have been better. Two Americans who had acquired Ebola while caring for patients in West Africa and had been flown to Emory University Hospital for emergency treatment emerged from the hospital — cured.
The situation in West Africa is less pleasant. In fact, in parts of Liberia, Sierra Leone , Guinea and Nigeria, it’s desperate. The death toll from Ebola approaches 1,500, and the World Health Organization, has said that the number of people who have been infected — which exceeds 2,600 — is considerably underestimated. This comes as reports that a separate outbreak of Ebola has been confirmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Nancy Writebol and Dr. Keith Brantly, the health care professionals who, flown to the United States and provided state-of-art care, including experimental medicine, are among the lucky survivors. Dr. Brantly’s plea that people who prayed for him also direct their prayers to the victims in West Africa is worth heeding.
Part of the reason the number of people infected with Ebola is greater than the actual count is that many who are infected withhold the names of family members and friends — individuals with whom they have shared plates of food and with whom they’ve cared for the sick closely enough to have been exposed to the virus. A so-called disease detective with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention trying to get the names of people who have had close contact with Ebola victims says professionals might be missing 40 to 60 percent of those people. The CDC settled on that range because in many communities, each sick person lists one or two close contacts even though households typically have five or six people. Even if, as the World Health Organization estimates, only about 10 percent of the contacts develop Ebola’s symptoms, that’s more than enough to keep the virus growing.
Victims hide other loved ones who are infected out of fear or ignorance, and in the process unknowingly increase the likelihood not just that their loved ones will die but that they will spread the scourge.
That’s a key reason some countries that already have closed their borders have also made it a crime to hide Ebola victims. These countries and medical personal are overwhelmed by Ebola. They’ve long struggled to overcome malaria and other diseases. They need help, lots of it, to build and expand — and staff — clinics and hospitals. Zmapp, the experimental treatment that is credited for helping Ms. Writebol and Dr. Brantly recover, shows promise but is in short supply, and there is no vaccine. The situation will get worse before it gets better. How much worse depends at least in part on the staying power of the world’s response.