The horrifying manner in which Ebola kills its victims and the lack of a cure have been the main reasons for the recent media frenzy. The World Health Organization declared a state of “international emergency” in response to the crisis, further fueling fear of the Ebola virus worldwide. An important but little known fact is that the strain of Ebola now proliferating in western Africa is much harder to contract than most deadly diseases in Africa because it is transmitted only by the direct exchange of fluids with an infected patient or animal, and only during the time when the infected is showing symptoms, not during the long 21-day (highly publicized) incubation period. The hype surrounding the disease leads people to believe that it is more easily contractible than is the case. This leads to an unwarranted panic, causing foreign business in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone to plummet. The further collapse of their economies means dwindling funds for healthcare development, making it even more difficult to combat developing cases of Ebola (among other deadly diseases).
While the panic damages the economies of the affected countries, it also offers Africa a new opportunity. Even though more people die every day of HIV/AIDs, malaria, diarrhea, and tuberculosis in the Ebola-affected West African nations than have died in the whole Ebola outbreak (as of this writing), the new attention to African healthcare could bring about some badly needed changes in policy. The media has shone a direct spotlight on African healthcare facilities, giving African nations a push to reform their systems and ask for help.
Such a spotlight on Ebola is a double-edged sword because it paints a false portrait: One where the biggest health concern in sub-Saharan Africa is Ebola. It is ignorant and frivolous for nations to spend millions of dollars quarantining and treating individuals with a disease that has no known cure when this money could be spent treating people with malaria or diarrhea, both completely preventable and fatal to a combined 956 people per day in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. While the attention on Ebola may ignore other significant illnesses prevalent in Africa, it also reveals just how poor the state of healthcare is in Africa.
The spread of Ebola is 100 percent preventable. The only reason the epidemic has been prolonged is because the infected nations do not possess adequate healthcare facilities to quarantine patients or the correct outreach measures to educate its communities on prevention. Unfortunately, African clinics’ inability to treat Ebola is just the tip of the iceberg. The severe shortage of doctors, lack of sufficient medications, and absence of appropriate medical facilities make the average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is 56. Instead of focusing on ending the Ebola epidemic, the international community should be pouring their funds and resources into helping African nations develop a healthcare system that can stand on its own. With the proper medical infrastructure, these healthcare systems would potentially be able to stop an Ebola epidemic should one ever occur again.
Ebola offers Africa a chance it has never had before: unprecedented international awareness and help with its healthcare systems. The hype about Ebola is overblown, but it might just be the key to major reforms in African healthcare. Ebola is hard to contract and easy to contain. The media is blowing the epidemic out of proportion; however, it is appropriate and necessary for developed countries to pay attention to the underprivileged healthcare systems of Africa. My time in Ghana was cut short, but I hope that the withdrawal of American universities’ academic programs from West Africa will only call further attention to the absurdity of the way in which the international community deals with healthcare.
Hanna Tyson, a sophomore studying science, technology, and society, is the international editor of Stanford Political Journal.