News Column

Like Polio, Ebola Was a Neglected Disease Once

September 1, 2014

Pamela Olet

Middle age patient with Ebola like symptoms being transferred to isolated wing of the hospital at Moi Teaching and Referral Hospital Eldoret August 2. Photo/Kennedy Lesiew

As if warning us to be prepared, ever since Ebola was first reported in 1976 several outbreaks have occurred mainly in West African countries. Unlike the current outbreak, the previous incidences were largely localised, relatively smaller in magnitude and were quickly contained. The problem is back on a scale that threatens the whole globe with human mortalities and economic fatalities. This begs the question: Did we heed the warnings and learn the lessons from past Ebola and other disease epidemics recorded in history? Many a times it's back to business as usual and focus goes to Infrastructure, because that is what is politically visible.

We are lucky that Ebola doesn't have a vector despite it being highly infectious through contact with body fluids from an infected person or animal. The world is still grappling with other vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, sleeping sickness and yellow fever, which have been around for much longer and claimed millions of lives and jailed millions of people to perpetual poverty.

The World Bank in its 2008 report on the national per capita incomes showed that 22 out of the 25 poorest countries had a Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis (T&T) problem. The problem is further compounded by the lack of adequate treatment regimes for diseases like sleeping sickness, which do not have effective drugs despite being around for centuries. Simply because they diseases affect the rural poor, they do not attract the interest of drug manufacturers, the media and the international community -- unlike Ebola, HIV-Aids, polio and avian flu.

This is an immoral negligence which the contemporary globalised world can longer turn a blind eye to, as all lives are equal. Neglected zoonotic diseases like trypanosomiasis have a more negative impact as they kill humans and their livestock slowly and affect the entire social system chronically. Trypanosomiasis can decimate the entire dairy and tourism industries.

Infectious diseases and their vectors don't respect geographical boundaries and need no passport at our ports of entry. This is a lesson that animal and human health sector managers must learn from the current Ebola outbreak, which the WHO has declared a global emergency. The world is not safe as long as one of us is sick or a disease vector still lingers in our neighbourhood. This calls for combined national, regional, continental and global interventions that apply multi-sectoral and trans-disciplinary approaches rolled into one huge movement. It was through such interventions that saw the world rid itself of diseases like smallpox and polio before its re-emergence.

Diseases in Africa that affect rural populations have attracted little research attention despite repeated outbreaks. The current Ebola pandemic teaches us that we can no longer afford to ignore the rural poor as the world has become a global village. We have to play 'brother's keeper' if the world is to be a safe place for all. We cannot afford to live with neglected diseases; giving them ample time to mutate and attack at will.

It is upon Africa, which seems to bear the brunt of the neglected, emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, to take lead in the battle to eradicate them and their vectors. Africa must remove these primitive diseases, a move that was seen in Lome, Togo in 2000 when African heads of states and governments made a declaration to eradicate tsetse flies and the diseases it spreads both to man and animals (sleeping sickness and nagana respectively). These efforts have seen this problem significantly reduced in Kenya, Botswana, Ghana and Namibia.

In Kenya, the famous Lambwe Valley is not in the news for tsetse flies as it once was, but for their absence which has allowed Black Rhino to be introduced to boost tourism. The economic gains from this single effort have seen farmers introduce dairy animals, produce more milk and make more money in regions where such activities wouldn't be carried out due to tsetse presence.

As the globe switches its focus to Ebola, it shouldn't lose sight of the orphaned but fatal diseases it has christened neglected tropical diseases.

Dr Pamela Olet is the Acting CEO of the Kenya Tsetse and Trypanosomiasis Eradication Council.

For more stories on investments and markets, please see HispanicBusiness' Finance Channel

Source: AllAfrica

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters