As Ebola Leaves West Africa, Why Are Resources Leaving Too?

Ebola is standing on its last legs in West Africa. The latest report from the WHO shared that Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea recorded no new cases of the disease over the past two weeks, for the first time since March 2014. A vaccine for Ebola just recently reached the final stages of clinical trials, and is expected to be administered to at-risk populations in the near future. Experts are already calling it the "fastest vaccine roll-out in history."

It is easy to forget that "Fearbola" struck the hearts and minds of Americans only a year ago, when a Liberian citizen entered the emergency room of a Dallas hospital, and inadvertently exposed the disease to two Texas nurses. Although initial concerns voiced by self-proclaimed public health experts like Donald Trump called for border closings and immigration restrictions, the ensuing panic ultimately compelled health professionals, governments, and international organizations to coordinate a meaningful response to a third-world disease. For all of the misinformation spread about how Ebola could go airborne, or the wall-to-wall media coverage of American Ebola patients entering and exiting hospitals reminiscent of OJ Simpson's murder trial, Fearbola, and the collective wisdom of the digital crowd, at least marshalled the funds and resources needed in a place where funds and resources are not usually available. At the time, action vindicated the panic.

But as the epidemic has started to reach its end, it is clear that progress came at a heavy price. During the outbreak, thousands of people continued to die from untreated cases of endemic diseases like malaria, and continue to do so today. The economies of three nations at Ebola's epicenter collectively lost more than two billion dollars of GDP -- a result certainly rooted in Ebola's death toll, but exacerbated by the global panic of foreign investors. As the world now forgets about Ebola, organizations have already began to dismantle medical centers, and health care workers have started to leave in droves back to their home countries -- far away from the villages on the outskirts of Freetown, Monrovia, and Conakry.

Public health leaders such as Paul Farmer correctly predicted this exodus. He recently shared with Vox that, when it comes to Ebola, "we'll fail to make the link between an emergency intervention and building the health systems that are required to prevent and take care of people once primary prevention fails." It is difficult to disagree with his sentiment. Farmer is describing the very nature of panics -- an overwhelming feeling that make us fear for today, without thinking about tomorrow. It is this same type of panic that blinds ourselves to a host of other endemic issues. In our own country, panic compels us to torture prisoners in the name of fighting terrorism, but to stand idly by as daily gun violence unfolds within our schools, shopping malls, and sites of worship.

Tremendous progress has been undoubtedly made in the fight against Ebola, but has the world done enough to address today's diseases endemic to the region, such as malaria, or tomorrow's next infectious contagion? I am not so sure. As social media and public health work synergistically to shed light on the profound struggles faced by the disadvantaged, we ought to ask ourselves if raw emotions connected to a panic response should dictate the allocation of limited resources -- to fight one disease, while ignoring many others.  

Perhaps understanding this imbalance of perspective, the Nobel committee awarded its annual prize for physiology and medicine to three scientists who discovered a series of anti-parasitic drugs that included artemisinin -- the current first line of treatment for malaria. Now that the tide of Ebola has finally begun to recede, I sincerely hope that the same brave compassion, resources, and willpower can be used to create stronger systems designed to fight back against endemic diseases like malaria, that have become much more prevalent causes of human suffering. By the time the average reader has finished reading this blog post, it is likely that no one will have contracted Ebola -- but that six children will have died just from malaria alone.