THE BLOG

Isn't Ebola Just Another Disease of Poverty?

19/11/2014 15:11 GMT | Updated 18/01/2015 10:59 GMT

This year has seen the most deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus to date. Tens of thousands of people in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia have been affected with over 5,500 having died to date. Fear of the disease has spread worldwide because of the ease with which it can be transmitted and it's exceptionally high mortality rate.

Much media and scientific attention has understandably been focused on treating those infected with the latest Ebola virus outbreak and on the urgent need to develop and deploy effective vaccines and treatments.

Less attention has been paid to the causes of Ebola and how it may be counteracted at the source by preventative primary health care in those countries at greatest risk. Ebola like malaria, typhoid, cholera and HIV is a disease of poverty. Since it's first outbreak in 1976 in what is now South Sudan Ebola has affected Zaire (Now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), Gabon, Uganda and the Ivory Coast. The common denominator between these outbreaks is the consumption of bush meat, rural poverty and a severe lack of primary healthcare workers and facilities.

The fight to overcome the Ebola virus is the same fight to eradicate all diseases of poverty and shouldn't be viewed in isolation. What is required to beat the diseases of poverty that still afflict much of rural Africa is a significant and sustained investment in primary healthcare for the continent's poorest and most vulnerable people.

Rather than looking at the problem of Ebola in isolation, politicians, aid organisations, development and health workers need to adopt a wider view of how we can sustainably develop new health care systems for at risk poor communities that can provide for all their health care needs.

It makes no sense to invest in a clinic focused purely on a single disease or illness such as malaria, Ebola or blindness. Rather than single issue causes what is really need is a huge investment over time to ensure that rural Africa has the connected and universal healthcare that it desperately needs and deserves. No-one would argue that Ebola is a terrible disease but to put Ebola in a wider context in 2012, 90% of the world's malaria deaths occurred in Africa and about 460,000 African children died before their fifth birthdays, according to the WHO 2013 malaria report.

Giving money to current fund-raising campaigns such as Band Aid's is an understandable and desirable humanitarian action that will save the lives of many by giving them urgent treatments they wouldn't otherwise receive and controlling it's spread by isolating more of those who are infected. What single cause campaigns won't do is prevent against future outbreaks of Ebola. To minimise the future risks of Ebola governments and aid agencies need to work together to develop, fund and manage health care systems fitting for the twenty-first century.

The economic cost of the latest Ebola outbreak is put at $32 billion by the World Bank in their worst case scenario and this at a time when GDP in Sub-Saharan Africa had been growing positively at over 5% a year. For the region affected it's an economic disaster and some commentators argue that global economic recovery as a whole may well be negatively impacted if the outbreak is not contained.

To give a simple idea of the gulf in healthcare funding between the developed West and countries currently battling against Ebola, Liberia's healthcare budget last year was £7 million whilst the NHS budget was £95 billion. There is considerable scope for Governments and public and private Donors worldwide to come together and use existing health related funding and donations in a more joined up way to create properly funded rural healthcare in Africa.

The challenge of improving rural healthcare in Africa as ever is in ensuring that money and resources get through to those that need it and that it is intended for. That challenge is a great one but if we don't want to see Ebola and other diseases as yet unseen come back to haunt us time and time again it's a challenge the world needs to rise to.