Highlights of optimism amongst the gloom

By Sanjaya Senanayake, MAppEpid '05

While it is clear that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has generated many negative images and stories, there is a positive aspect that can be illustrated by three events happening in different parts of Africa during the epidemic.

Firstly, in July last year, when a patient with Ebola flew into Nigeria, the world looked on with bated breath.

At that time, the outbreak was far from controlled in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea; hence, the prospect of a fourth nation joining the epidemic was one not to be relished, a prospect that could overwhelm both the morale and the anti-Ebola campaign.

To compound things, this infected traveller landed in Lagos, which is a bustling metropolis of around 15 million people.

Then infection spread to another Nigerian city called Port Harcourt with a population of over one million. Yet by 20 October, the Ebola outbreak was declared over in Nigeria.

Another event of note occurred in July in the Democratic Republic of Congo; however, for many around the world, it has gone unnoticed.

The event? An outbreak of Ebola - entirely separate to the one in West Africa.

The outbreak began in July when a pregnant woman cut up a dead monkey and contracted Ebola.

The sick woman then underwent a Caesarean section, which led to healthcare workers involved in the operation being infected.

Between July and October, there were under 70 cases with around 50 deaths.

In other words, it never gained the fearsome momentum of the outbreak in West Africa.

Finally, in late September in Uganda, a healthcare worker developed a severe illness characterised by fever, headache, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhoea before dying from this fulminant disease.

Tests confirmed that the healthcare worker had Marburg virus.

These three events are all beacons of hope and optimism amidst the awful epidemic of Ebola virus in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

Each situation had the potential to steamroll into an uncontrolled outbreak of infection in a resource-poor country. However, in each case, it didn't.

Timely and effective public health interventions to identify and isolate cases and their contacts. Even without an effective vaccine or antiviral medication, simple quarantine measures and good infection control practices were able to arrest a fearsome beast in its tracks.