As the Ebola epidemic continues to spread amid warnings by Doctors Without Borders that it is out of control, Dr. Michael T. Osterholm writes that health professionals are not talking publicly about the potential for Ebola to mutate into an even more dangerous form by developing the ability for airborne transmission. This has not happened yet in humans, but he says controlled studies have confirmed respiratory transfer of the Ebola Zaire strain from pigs to monkeys.
In addition, Osterholm says Ebola Reston, a different strain, passed through air transmission in a study group of monkeys in 1989 and the animals were euthanized to contain the virus.
If the virus reaches the megacities of Africa, he says, the opportunity for mutation could lead to more dire consequences, endangering many more people. Even without this speculative possibility, one mapping model predicts the number of victims will far exceed WHO estimates and could take a year or more to contain.
The rising rate of infections and deaths is cause for more than words of concern. It’s a call to action.
Poverty must be addressed
The Ebola virus carries the disease, but the disease is transmitted by ignorance, mistrust and resistance to proper care by ill-informed people. Ebola gains its foothold in poor communities where lack of understanding of the virus and how it is transmitted is widespread.
It gains momentum because these communities lack basic health care services and medical staff. It roars forward where people do not trust the information they are given by government officials. This escalating pyramid results in a contagion that threatens communities, nations, and potentially, the world. The underlying culprit is poverty.
Obviously, the immediate crisis must be contained. But we cannot stop there.
We must address poverty in a systematic, comprehensive way. Too many people are still dying of malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases of poverty. This will require a more effective, coordinated approach than we’ve mustered so far. Small one-off projects and uncoordinated development efforts will not get at the problem of poverty.
We need to provide people with access to accurate information, better education, more effective, well-staffed and well-equipped health facilities, treatment and immunization that cover the entire population, clean water, sanitation systems and economic opportunity.
This requires global resources. We know this, but we don’t approach it holistically.
What we don’t talk about
The poor have no constituency. Their voices go unheard. And yet, they are not invisible. Faith organizations have been working with poor people for decades, and within faith communities, poverty is seen for what it is, a dishonoring of the sacredness of the human spirit.
But faith organizations have been focused on limited goals and have admirably addressed human needs within this limited perspective. Today, however, the need is for a broader approach and advocates who seek to change public policy in addition to performing their own good works locally.
Before they head for their destination, every mission team should make it a priority to be briefed on the conditions that contribute to the poverty that afflicts those they go to serve. And they should commit to addressing those conditions upon their return by advocating for public policies to alleviate the root causes.
We need to see the social, economic and political context in which Ebola, malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases of poverty thrive. This is what we in faith communities don’t talk about.
Thinking – and acting – globally
Palliative measures will ease the immediate suffering, but they do not change the conditions that are at the root of human ignorance and suffering. These roots are structural and systemic. They result from poor governance, economic inequity, lack of empowered citizens and corporate responsibility.
We must build out the digital infrastructure that carries reliable, useful information, make it accessible to everyone and train people how to use it. This infrastructure has not only shrunk the world, it contains the store of the world’s knowledge, and everyone needs access to it.
We must change our thinking that diseases like Ebola, and those affected by it, are remote from us. We must foster a global understanding. We think of Ebola as thousands of miles across the ocean, but it’s all-too-clear today that it’s really only a six-hour flight away.
Like it or not, we are global citizens, and “their problems” are our problems.