Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Epidemic draws world attention to Africa's needs

By Zhang Tiankan (China Daily) Updated: 2014-12-22 10:20

"The story ended with a whole world in panic; it began in a small village in Africa." This sentence in the German magazine Zeit best describes the fatal nature of the Ebola epidemic. Since its outbreak in West Africa in February, Ebola had infected 17,145 people globally by Dec 4, out of which 6,070 died.

The epidemic, in more ways than one, has exposed the cost of inequalities in world healthcare services. In its 1978 Alma Ata Declaration, the World Health Organization vowed to provide "a level of health that will permit them to lead a socially and economically productive life" to "all peoples of the world" by 2000. Yet 14 years after the deadline, basic healthcare is still an illusion for people in many parts of Africa.

Ebola spreads by direct contact with blood or other body fluids of an infected human or animal, and could be prevented through not-so complicated quarantine measures. But the fact is, only 18 percent of Ebola patients in Liberia receive treatment in hospitals, health centers or quarantine facilities. Even in the capital Monrovia, some Ebola patients could not gain admittance to medical centers because of overcrowding and, as a result, their entire families were infected by and succumbed to the virus. Worse, the health centers don't even have proper sanitized and protected vehicles to carry the bodies of Ebola victims.

It should be noted that Ebola, being a self-limiting disease, does not necessarily lead to death. Many of the victims died not of fatal hematorrhea (profuse hemorrhage) but because of extreme dehydration; intravenous infusion could have saved them but such treatment is a luxury in many countries in West Africa.

A look at history would reveal that the Ebola virus had been sending warnings for a long time. As early as 1976, an Ebola outbreak in Zaire left 280 people dead. It was followed by smaller outbreaks over the years. But since the virus mainly attacked the poorer parts of the world, it failed to draw international attention and prompt multinational medical giants to start research into preventive and curative medicines and vaccines until it threatened Europe and the United States.

These facts show Africa remains an isolated island in terms of healthcare and medical technology. The world did not care about the continent and its people until the cost of neglecting the virus threatened to turn many in even the developed into victims.

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