Ebola: The Deadliest of Them All

by Jessica Collins

In response to the most fatal Ebola outbreak in international history, President Barack Obama has committed the United States military to build 17 new treatment centers in the affected regions of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea.

Since 1976, there have been sporadic Ebola outbreaks in the regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Uganda. However, despite an 88 percent mortality rate, previous epidemics were surprisingly less deadly than the strain of Ebola coursing through the world today.

Before 2014, the largest outbreak occurred in Uganda in 2000 and claimed 425 lives. The death toll of the ongoing outbreak is 3000 and rising.  In previous outbreaks the disease infected less people, but infected persons were more likely to die from Ebola than they are today.

This discrepancy may be due to a less virulent strain of the disease or some sort of genetically constituted protection. A more likely explanation for the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history is not scientific at all, but instead is rooted in sociopolitical and cultural chaos.

The countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea are distraught with the political unrest of dictatorship and civil war. Not only has this resulted in societies plagued by destitution, but it has also led to distrust between citizens and their government.

During an interview, Amesh Adalja, M.D., a Senior Associate at the UPMC Center for Health Security, explained how citizens’ distrust in their government could have led to a general lack of confidence in health care officials. “The people in these countries are running from red cross trucks over there,” Dr. Adalja said. “This kind of distrust with public health authorities makes this outbreak much harder to control than in the past.”

Citizens’ extreme skepticism of health care officials became apparent when Womme villagers murdered eight Guinean health officials who were educating the residents about the virus.

A second explanation for the uncontrollable spread of the virus is the lack of attention given to the disease in research and pharmaceutical industries—most likely because it primarily affects third-world countries—despite years of recurrent epidemics.

While there are various vaccinations in the works, only limited quantities were manufactured prior to the outbreak, and the drugs were designed for animal testing only. It will take months to produce a drug for human consumption, and even then it is unlikely that everyone in the affected areas will receive a vaccine.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the way the world of medical research and pharmaceutical industries function. Now that Ebola threatens to become a true global pandemic, governments are pouring money into research for its cure. Hopefully it’s not too little, too late.