This post originally appeared in TIME on October 1, 2014. Professor Peter Piot is Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and former Executive Director of UNAIDS and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations. He co-discovered Ebola in 1976. The text is re-posted here, in part, with the permission of the author. The full text can be found here.
The international community took too long to react to the outbreak. We must now put in place mechanisms to handle better the next inevitable epidemic.
The news from Dallas that the first Ebola case outside of Africa has been diagnosed on U.S. soil is a stark reminder that epidemics on the other side of the world are a threat to us all. No epidemic is just local.
As long as this still expanding Ebola epidemic in West Africa continues, there is a constant source for it to spread to other countries – in the first place to neighboring African countries. This outbreak is the largest and longest ever, with 7,157 cases and 3,330 deaths so far. It is the first outbreak that involves multiple and entire countries, and the first one that affects capital cities.
With increasing global mobility, it was always possible that someone traveling from an infected country would be carrying this deadly virus with them, and it will happen again. Fortunately, the U.S. and other high income countries have robust infection control measures and clinical practices to stop the onward spread of the virus within the country. Health services are well equipped to isolate the patient, to trace everyone he has been in contact with, and to put those contacts under surveillance for signs of fever. Health workers need to be alert for anyone with early symptoms of Ebola by always asking about people’s travel history (which is good practice any way). The risk to citizens is extremely small.
We would need to be far more concerned if someone with Ebola traveled to a country where health services have poor infection control and lack hygiene practices. If an infected traveler enters an environment like this, it will result in new outbreaks. In addition, nursing and medical staff are at high risk of contracting Ebola virus infection as they often lack protective gear. Over 200 health care workers have already died in this epidemic alone.
This confirmed case in the U.S. does not mean we should respond by stopping flights from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, as some are calling for. The current outbreak is already disrupting entire societies because hospitals have stopped functioning and commerce is coming to a halt. Cutting these countries off from the rest of the world will only worsen the social and economic impacts, hamper aid efforts, and increase the panic and fear. In addition it won’t stop the spread of the virus, and is not recommended by the World Health Organization. Read More.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.