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Ebola: How Local Governments Can Respond

By Grant Olcott

Hardship and tragedy have struck West Africa as the local populations fight the ominous Ebola epidemic. On July 27, the Liberian government closed its borders in an attempt to halt the spread of the most deadly Ebola virus outbreak in history, which has already claimed the lives 1,013 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. Fear, mistrust, and anxiety have broadened the reach of the virus, which spreads by bodily fluids and proves fatal in about 90 percent of cases.

Though only contractible once a patient manifests symptoms, Ebola is highly contagious and rapidly spreading throughout West Africa, posing a serious threat to the region. The World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed the recent outbreak “a public health emergency of international concern.”

Unfortunately, there is no clear solution to containing the growing outbreak, as the virus has no cure or preventative vaccine. Politicians and humanitarian aid workers, thus, have limited means to mitigate the growing crisis besides quarantining the sick. 

The hope for a solution hinges largely on prevention. Taking security measures to reduce contact between people and keeping them informed about the status of the disease can help minimize opportunities for the virus to spread.

Dr. Rupa Patel, an Infectious Disease specialist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis explains, “The local entities must first take time to understand the disease and how it is transmitted by using resources put out by agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO), Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Doctors Without Borders.” 

Current policies in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone aim to restrict the movement of those infected with Ebola and to halt the virus’ spread throughout the region; however environmental and cultural factors, as well as the highly contagious nature of the disease, are proving counteractive to these prevention efforts. 

Reports of families hiding sick loved ones at home and engaging in contact-heavy burial ceremonies concern doctors and officials trying to contain the outbreak. Moreover, contact through sweat, which seems almost inevitable in the midsummer African heat, is a common way to transmit the disease.

Economic concerns within the infected countries have begun to clash with containment policies as well. As cross-border commerce grinds to a halt, the nations’ GDP growth will likely decrease significantly. Similarly the government can do little to prevent migrant workers from traveling throughout the region and carrying the virus with them. 

Though there are several environmental and cultural factors that local governments cannot control, measures should still be taken to ensure that the number of people in contact with the sick is minimized. “Local governments and NGOs should be disseminating information within the community about the signs and symptoms of the virus so people can go to a health facility,” says Dr. Patel. “Seeking care early can prevent the spread of the disease to others. Practicing good sanitation in the community and at health facilities are the mainstays of viral transmission prevention.” 

Of the four infected countries struggling to harness the outbreak, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has enacted the most effective policies.  In addition to closing Liberia’s borders, she has attempted to reduce contact through efforts such as banning soccer and mandating a five-minute informative film to be shown at entertainment venues and restaurants throughout the country. She also appointed a taskforce to travel from village to village, spreading awareness about the disease.

Moving forward in their fight against Ebola, neighboring nations should look to President Sirleaf as an example. She has taken the most practical approach, striking a balance between complete inaction and a drastic disruption of the nation’s livelihood.

Given the gravity of the Ebola outbreak, politicians should stick to a simple, awareness-based policy as they respond to this medical emergency. While recovery will inevitably be slow, quarantine and widespread awareness are the strategies most conducive to lessening Ebola’s impact and restricting its spread.

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Grant Olcott is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of scrollededitorial]

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