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Signs of victories against Ebola in Africa – and the United States

Time for hysteria to be tempered with evidence that progress is being made, and that the global response to Ebola can really make a difference.

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    Health officials use a thermometer to screen passengers at Murtala Mohammed International airport in Lagos, Nigeria. On Monday, the World Health Organization declared Nigeria Ebola-free.
    Sunday Alamba/AP
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Ebola is an alarming fatal disease and the robust international response to contain the outbreak in western sub-Saharan Africa has been both appropriate and necessary. The disease has claimed over 4,500 lives – nearly all in three West African countries – since the latest outbreak began in March.

But evidence is accumulating that fast action, appropriate training, and decent coordination between national authorities and international aid agencies and foreign governments can make a big difference in containing the disease.

Nigeria was declared Ebola free yesterday, after a small outbreak that infected 20 people and led to eight deaths, including a Nigerian doctor who correctly diagnosed a Liberian Ebola patient. The hysteria in the US about Africa's largest country being overrun by the disease, with planeloads of people from Lagos bringing a major outbreak to the homeland, was just that. Nigeria was able to contain the problem swiftly.

So too in Senegal, where the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak over on Oct. 17. Senegal recorded just one case. The Democratic Republic of Congo, which experienced an Ebola outbreak from July to September that was considered epidemiologically separate from the one in West Africa, contained the disease after 49 people were killed.

While the disease is still a major threat in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, there are signs that new cases are slowing even in these hardest hit countries. In Sierra Leone, the outbreak began in the east of the country, and there are signs the disease is slowing there. That's not to say there isn't bad news – the disease has spread to the west. But there are no signs of the kinds of exponential growth that epidemiologists have been most worried about.

To be sure, alarm bells are still sounding. Dr. Bruce Aylward, the WHO's assistant director-general, said Oct. 14 that new Ebola infections "could" reach 10,000 a week "within two months" if the global response is insufficient. But Dr. Aylward's chief motivation for such statements is actually to ensure that the WHO gets the response it needs.  

Not to downplay the loss of life to Ebola, or the devastation to fragile societies like Liberia and Sierra Leone, but this outbreak pales in comparison to far more routine killers in Africa. That 4,500 have died since the outbreak began in March is tragic. Yet despite major gains in prevention and treatment in recent decades, malaria still kills about 165,000 people a year in Africa. UNICEF estimates that 2,000 children under the age of five die every day because of lack of access to clean water, most of these deaths in Asia and Africa.

There are also signs of scientific progress. The WHO says there's a good chance that two experimental Ebola vaccines will be ready for trials in West Africa by January.

But as the evidence stacks up that Ebola is very, very unlikely to cause a global cataclysm, the fear-mongering in some quarters of the US continues unabated. Consider Washington Post columnist Marc Thiessen's piece yesterday speculating on Ebola and "Islamist radicalism." "What if the two threats converge into one?" Mr. Thiessen asked

This has been the "sharks with laser beams" of the Ebola outbreak. Pundits have mused about jihadis weaponizing a biological pathogen, one that requires contact with body fluids from a sick carrier to be transmitted. Not easy to achieve, which is why it's never been done. 

Nevertheless, Thiessen and his cohort seem undeterred. Such pieces usually rest on healthily convenient interpretations of the facts. For instance, he writes:

Think it can’t happen? If an Ebola-infected Liberian, Thomas Eric Duncan, was able to fly to Dallas, what is to stop an Ebola-infected terrorist from doing the same? And if our health-care system was unable to handle a single Ebola patient, imagine what would happen if 50, 100 or more Ebola patients started showing up at U.S. hospitals. Already we have seen schools closed in Dallas and Cleveland and a ship denied entry in Mexico and Belize. It would not require a attack on the level of Dark Winter to cause mass disruptions to our way of life and our economy.

Horrors! Except that ... well, Mr. Duncan flew to Dallas on a plane full of people and infected no one else. The 48 people Duncan had contact with outside of the hospital in Dallas where he sought treatment, including four relatives he shared a cramped apartment with, came through their quarantine period with flying colors. None were infected.

While Thiessen is a hawkish Republican whose column exists to embarrass the Obama administration, this strange "question" has not only been posed by GOP partisans. 

Two of the brave nurses who treated Duncan before he passed at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital did acquire Ebola, in part thanks to lax training and preparation at the facility. One of the two nurses, unaware she had the disease, traveled on a crowded plane to Ohio. There is no sign yet that anyone on that plane contracted the disease. The two women are currently receiving medical care and their physicians are guardedly optimistic.

Ebola is showing itself to be eminently containable in countries with advanced health care systems. That's not good news for the poorer countries afflicted, but is also evidence that financial support and training in everything from handling bodies to wearing hazmat suits can go a long way.

This is nothing to be cavalier about. But since Duncan passed on Oct. 8 there have been no more Ebola fatalities in the US. In the meantime, roughly 900 Americans have died in falling accidents and about 1,100 in car accidents.

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