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Ebola: With No Vaccine Only the Power of Information Can Defeat the Virus

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The Ebola outbreak affecting West Africa is deadly serious. Deaths across the region stand at over 700 people including one US citizen, with two more Americans infected. While this cannot be considered an epidemic, it seems possible the toll may now have surpassed the levels of the previous largest outbreak.

After contracting Ebola, the majority infected lose their lives. There is no known cure. For this reason, the bravery of medics - both local and foreign - who are entering contaminated zones to treat those who are suffering is breathtaking.

The international media is right to focus attention on this outbreak as it now may be developing an international dimension. Attempts to contain Ebola's spread are exacerbated by our interconnected world of porous borders and international air travel.

In the face of this challenge, there are two factors that will help us defeat Ebola. The first is the virus's own unique characteristics; the second is the power of information.

One of these characteristics is that, despite being so lethal, Ebola is poor at transferring between humans. It is not an airborne virus. To become infected you must have been in direct contact with bodily fluids from someone who is already infected and already showing the symptoms of the disease.

This, of course, does not take away from the reality of an infected sufferer. The sight of an Ebola victim in their last stages has proved harrowing for many hospital workers some of whom have refused to return to work after an infected patient is diagnosed. While the disease in its latter stages has distinctly visible signs including vomiting and external bleeding often from the eyes, diagnosis initially is frustratingly difficult, often meaning people travel believing they are only suffering from a cold or headache.

This means, however, it is possible to provide some protection against the spread by limiting unnecessary contacts such as shaking hands with anyone showing even the most low-level form of illness, and escalating levels of sanitation. For those who are infected, no direct contact without protective clothing must take place. At the same time, the rapid deaths of Ebola victims mean the disease does not have the opportunity to travel far.

That is why the power of information is the most critical weapon we have in defeating this outbreak. Public health information is being disseminated across affected West African countries. In Liberia, we are taking the highest levels of precaution. We have been showing public information films in public places. We are also taking direct measures to limit contact by closing schools, non-essential government offices and halting mass public congregations such as football matches in order to limit the opportunity for people to come into physical contact with one another.

However, our major information challenge is not in towns and cities where pre-emptive measures are more possible to enforce. It is in the countryside where western health workers can be treated with suspicion, and some have been turned away because communities believe they are the cause of the spread of the disease. Superstition aside, traditional practices in burial, including the preparation and washing of the deceased, is one of the near-certain ways of contracting the virus if death was from Ebola.

We have never been faced with the need to intervene to limit long-established cultural practices within such a short period of time. But we are using all available methods of information to inform people of the risks to their future. We are using indigenous language radio to reach remote communities and sending local public health workers - at real risk to themselves - to speak in local languages to villagers, to overcome the suspicion they may have of others. Even with the best medical care available, if we don't defeat the wave of misinformation and suspicion that is being fostered in many remote communities, we will not defeat Ebola quickly.

Similarly, we are taking to the international media to inform as much as possible. Other governments are now rightly taking precautions such as medical checks at airports in order to try to quarantine anyone with symptoms as well those who have come into direct contact with them.

Together, combining local information to combat long entrenched cultural practices, and international communication to make travellers aware, we can help to halt the spread of this deadly disease.

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