9.16.14 | Bloomberg Businessweek
By Steve Brozak and Anne Marie Noronha
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Ebola has evoked our worst nightmares as it continues to outrun containment efforts. The staggering death toll of the disease, projected to rise exponentially, means the modern world faces a global crisis on par with the plagues of history. Unlike seven centuries ago, there are viable options to fight the disease on a global scale. The longer the world takes to exercise those options, however, the less effective and more costly they will become.
Most people expect that some biotech company will eventually create a vaccine or antiviral, and the high-tech cure will swiftly arrive where it is most needed. Countless Hollywood blockbusters have implanted such fictions in our psyches. Unfortunately the pace of science is much slower, even in the face of mass loss of life. It’s true that we have sophisticated manufacturing facilities, but only because of U.S. government spending over the last decade by such agencies as BARDA (Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority) and NIAID (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) to address the threat of deadly pathogens. These facilities will become critical to our “mopping up” efforts later on. First, however, we must accept that Ebola is a threat to the entire world.
As the U.N. General Assembly meets on Tuesday, we must come to terms with the fact that a highly coordinated military intervention is absolutely necessary and inevitable. The U.S. and its allies must be obliged to muster a ready force of 15,000 within 30 days, with almost as many health-care personnel to deal with patients and medical screening. Even prior to this, a secured air-bridge system must be initiated while commercial air travel continues to shut down. An air-bridge will be essential to continue uninterrupted transport of health-care workers, medical supplies, and food.
Why is such an organized and robust strategy required? Reports from Liberia indicate that the situation is desperate. Hospitals have become quarantine zones for the dead and soon-to-be dead. Medicine is no longer even being used on people infected with Ebola. It is especially clear that the Liberia’s government is incapable of managing a response; even elected officials have fled the nation. Doctors and nurses have either perished from Ebola or have left the country due to a lack of support and concern for their safety.
Amid the collapse of health-care infrastructure, it is only a matter of time before total chaos descends. The number of infected people is spiraling out of control, with estimates of human infection unreliable. In past outbreaks, transmission contacts in remote areas were counted by the tens; today’s infected contacts can reach the hundreds in an urban setting.
The early symptoms of Ebola—fever, chills and flu-like illness—mimic several other diseases, including malaria. Those who may seem to have the disease are put into wards with patients who really do have Ebola. The impending onset of the hot rainy season will make it even more difficult for remaining health-care workers to adhere to wearing full biohazard suits. This will only aggravate the exponential rise in the number of sick and dead: Some models predict over 100,000 deaths by the end of the year if the rest of the world continues to drag its feet.
Even if Ebola doesn’t mutate to become more infectious, we must accept that this virus is no longer an African problem—so far away geographically that it’s hard to imagine it touching our own lives. A single passenger on a ship or an airplane could spread the virus to another continent. The Ebola crisis is a natural disaster, like a tsunami or earthquake. But unlike natural disasters with limited global consequences, Ebola is perpetual with far-reaching implications. What we must realize is that Africa is our neighbor and Ebola’s global spread is no longer the stuff of fiction.