Thursday, 21 August 2014

Ebola phobia: Bigger problem than Ebola itself

A Poster from CDC&P Nigeria
Don't eat bushmeat
Keep calm and carry on- The Economist

THE FEAR OF THE DREADED  disease, Ebola, what we shall call Ebolaphobia, is proving more disruptive and expensive than the disease itself. Although the numbers are not yet crunched, some indications are emerging. The affected parts of West Africa will suffer significant economic costs. For instance Liberia which has already lost $12 million so far and has already indicated that she will miss the projected GDP growth of 5.9 per cent in 2014 by significant margin.

Ebola will shave off two percentage points from Sierra Leone’s growth target. As of now, projections have been downgraded to 12 per cent this year from the projected 14 per cent.  It could shrink even further if the virus is not controlled soon.  In Nigeria, the economic cost of Ebola is tagged at $3.5billion dollars. Yet only 12 people have been confirmed to be infected so far, with two of them dead.  Although $3.5 of the colossal US$500 billion 

 In Kenya, Kenya Airways is the unfortunate victim of the fear of the disease. The airline has been forced to suspend flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia due pressure at home.

 Yet, all these costs are the consequence of fear of the disease –not the disease itself. So far, just about 2500 people are infected by the disease in three West African countries namely, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. Some 1350 people have succumbed to the disease since January. Given the low numbers of the infected, the colossal loses are irrational.  Why do they happen?

 A World Bank study shows that zoonotic diseases like Ebola cost economies anything between $500 million and $50 billion. The bulk of the costs, experts say, comprise of efforts to avoid infection such as reduced travel and discretionary spending. These account for 60 per cent of all costs. Illness and missed work account for 28 per cent of GDP losses, while mortality - and the resulting reduction in productivity - account for the remaining 12 per cent.

Explains the Economist, “The economic costs of epidemics are often out of proportion to their death toll. The outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003 is estimated to have caused over $50 billion-worth of damage to the global economy, despite infecting only about 8,000 people and causing fewer than 800 deaths. That is because panic and confusion can be as disruptive as the disease itself. Studies of past outbreaks have shown that lethal diseases that lack a cure tend to provoke overreactions. This is true even if the risk of transmission is low, as is the case with Ebola.”

So the cost of fear is way higher the direct cost of treating, managing and even the cost productivity caused by death. This fear has adversely affected critical sectors of the economy including; aviation, tourism and hospitality, trade, medicine and agriculture.

 In the case of Ebola, the World Health Organization stoked the panic by declaring the “epidemic an international emergency.” Reaction was swift; West Africa was isolated by careless pronouncement. Soon Airlines, led by British airways suspended flights to West Africa. Other countries with their own form of suspension including such comical ones as: Africans being barred from Bars in Korea, prostitutes in India were advised to avoid Africa clients and such other comical bans. Korean Air has also suspended flights to Nairobi which is a 10 -hour- flight from the epicentre of the epidemic in West Africa.

 Perhaps Korean Air was reacting to a statement by WHO that Kenya is a high risk location. This statement, given what is scientifically known about the transmission of Ebola was reckless, unprofessional and irresponsible.  The same organization has issued statements showing that Ebola cannot be transmitted through sharing a flight with an affected person.

 Ebola, although fatal, is not infectious.  It is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person, or exposure to objects such as needles that have been contaminated with infected secretions," said Stephan Monroe, deputy director of the CDC's National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases.   It is highly unlikely to be transmitted in crowded places as trains and air planes since it is not air bone, nor it transmitted by neither water nor insects such as Mosquito.

This means that among the best preventive measures is to isolate the infected person and avoid burial ceremonies in case of death. The next measure, according to the Nigerian Centre for Disease control and Prevention is to avoid eating bush meat. 
 Ebola’s natural host is the fruit bat. But other wild animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines are also carriers. Consequently, the disease gets into the human population after people come in close contact with the blood, organs or bodily fluids of infected animals.

  Given what is known about Ebola, it is easier to prevent perhaps than Malaria and difficult to catch if we do not create, by our own actions, the environment conducive to infection. The conditions include, hunting wild animals for meat and handling corpses of animals or man.  In fact, Ebola it seems is only a threat to the rural folk and medical personnel. These are definitely not urban dwellers and are not the kind of people air travelers come into contact with frequently.

The fear is irrational and Africa cannot afford the cost of Ebola phobia.  The Phobia has already cost us a tidy sum in terms if economic growth and business. We need to go easy on the rhetorric.

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