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Poverty Helps Fuel Ebola Outbreak, Experts Say


Ebola spreads through contact with the blood and fluids of infected people. But experts say the outbreak is also being fueled by poverty and poor governance.

In West Africa, they are literally building the facilities to handle Ebola from scratch. Improvised tents house quarantined Ebola patients.

Many hospitals in the region lack basic equipment, says Tulane University virus expert Dr. Daniel Bausch. He spoke to VOA by Skype.

“You go to a hospital in Sierra Leone or Liberia, and it’s not unusual for a healthcare worker to say, ‘We don’t have gloves.’ Or, ‘We don’t have clean needles,'"said Bausch.

Poor health systems plague the continent’s other Ebola hotspots, too. Bausch says there's a common factor.

“All of the large outbreaks of Ebola or its sister virus, Marburg, happen in places where social and political unrest over the years have decimated the public health system," he said.

The war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo has seen six Ebola outbreaks. Civil wars wrecked health systems in Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 90s and 2000s.

Meanwhile, working in neighboring Guinea, Bausch watched paved roads erode to dirt paths and towns slide deeper into poverty under the weight of dictatorship and corruption.

“That period of not-responsible government degraded the systems, public health and otherwise in Guinea, and I think did have a role in leaving the country open to this sort of epidemic," he said.

Like the health systems, many people in Ebola-stricken regions lack the resources to get by. And that puts them at risk.

As they cut down forests for charcoal and to grow food, Bausch says they are driving the bats thought to carry the virus out into the open.

“With deforestation, bats that ordinarily would be foraging for fruit within fairly remote areas inside the forest now are forced to come out and look for fruit, for example, mango trees that may be in the proximity of humans and bring them closer to humans and have more of a chance of introduction of the virus," said Bausch.

And poverty is also driving people deeper into the forest in search of food, including so-called "bushmeat," which is known to carry the virus.

It doesn’t have to be this way, says Dr. William Karesh with the EcoHealth Alliance, also speaking via Skype.

“You have outbreaks in Uganda and they have invested in their health systems and they have invested in their education systems. So, of course, they still have these outbreaks but they’re controlled very rapidly," said Karesh.

Once this outbreak ends, Karesh says, health officials need to start preparing for the next one with better labs and hospitals, and more public information on how to prevent infection.

“We can’t stop earthquakes, but we can prevent a lot of the damage of earthquakes. And it’s the same with these emerging diseases and Ebola," he said.

If governments invest in better education and healthcare systems, he says, the next outbreak could be less deadly.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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