Should India worry about Ebola?

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: November 2014

Nobel Prize-winning biologist Joshua Lederberg once wrote, “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on this planet is the virus.” There are few healthcare workers who might disagree with this statement. It’s not nuclear bombs and high-tech missiles that will pose the biggest challenge to human existence, it is one of the smallest things on the planet, the virus.

It doesn’t take much effort to see that. Smallpox killed up to half a billion people in the twentieth century alone, before its eradication, in the nineteen-seventies. Other examples include the Avian Influenza or the bird flu whose virus continues to show threats of mutation and the Swine Flu virus. Perhaps the most infamous of all of them is the HIV virus – millions of dollars are spend every year to find a cure for it.

We have known this for a while now, and scientists have been struggling to find a solution, but they are yet to see significant success. Unlike antibiotics that have been successful in bacterial infections, the only weapons we have against the virus now are some specific antiviral drugs that can inhibit viruses and our own immune system. While our body is able to fight off some viruses like those of the common cold, we can only run from the more dangerous villains.

This impending catastrophe and the seriousness of the threat that viruses pose was seen yet again recently when some African countries saw a major outbreak of Ebola. The medical world is not new to this disease. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Ebola occurrences have been happening since 1976 , largely in Africa,but the latest episode of the disease in West Africa is by far the most critical ever. More cases and deaths have been reported -the toll is close to 5000 now- in this epidemic than all others together. Perhaps the saddest part is that the affected nations -Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal — are all countries with poor health systems and infection surveillance.

The scary aspects of this virus are its high chances of death (25 to 90 percent, according to the WHO) and that we haven’t managed to find a cure for it. The fact that the disease’s virus managed to reach the US, a rich country that had taken significant safeguards to avoid such a situation, increases worries about how countries like India, with pathetic health systems and infection control methods, will handle with this lethal virus.

Ever since the news of the recent outbreak, Indians have understandably been worried about the virus reaching the subcontinent. We do have quite a few people travelling from the infected regions often, but forecasts built on flight patterns brought out by researchers at Northeastern University, US, suggest that India has a low risk of getting a case of Ebola.

Of course the chances of the virus landing here is not nil, it is a totally possible scenario, and as this epidemic lingers, the danger of this continues to increase. Ebola cases that have reached outside Africa have travelled through passengers taking flights from Ebola-affected nations in West Africa. While transportation links between India and West Africa are low, the virus can come in via a third country. Besides, there are quite a few Indian communities living in these nations of West Africa, and if the condition there deteriorates significantly, these people might decide to come back to India. So health authorities here need to be attentive, and be aware that at some time, whether during this epidemic or the next ones, random cases could pop-up here. The problem, of course, will be to ensure that these random cases are controlled to avoid reaching the larger population.

To their credit, the Indian government has already begun taking measures to detect any possible threat. International airports have started screening passengers and major cities have identified hospitals in case an Ebola case is reported. Along with this labs that are capable of testing for the virus have also been made ready.

The lethal nature of the virus makes it essential that the medical workers possess special equipment to detect the disease. The government has to make sure that each and every international airport receives such adequate facilities and that the health workers receive the needed training.

However, if the virus somehow manages to breach such controls and enter the general population, the government will have a much harder task at hand, considering our haphazard public health system. Our densely populated cities and villages, the unhygienic waste disposal systems and inadequate hospital facilities are some of the best conditions for the virus to spread. Moreover, considering the fear that the disease has so far created, there is no telling how far things would go before the public rises up in anger against the administration or antisocial elements begin to take advantage of the situation.

The social impacts of a virus like Ebola are scarier as well. Experts have already voiced fears of a stigma against people from infected nations and have suggested that authorities should be wary of ostracizing measures as fear captures people.

The good news is that there is some successes in fighting Ebola. The US has managed to contain the virus that reached its shores, thanks to their efficient health care system. But what is more encouraging is that the African country of Nigeria seems to have managed to contain the outbreak as well, with its government training and equipping healthcare workers, as well as spreading awareness about the nature of the virus and precautions that should be taken. Nigeria’s action could as well be an example for third world countries like India.

Some studies have also found that the virus may not be deadly to everyone and that it is the genetic factors that decide how dangerous it is to an individual. As more studies are conducted on the virus, we shall be able to know more about this disease. A vaccine and an antiviral drug is reportedly at testing stages but are expected to be available for mass production only by next year. We can hope that the governments in various countries, especially those in West Africa succeed in containing the virus as much as possible till a satisfactory cure has been found.