As we all know, Ebola has dominated the global headlines in recent months. The media has stretched the entire continuum from minimization to sensationalizing the current outbreak. This has spanned things like the initial "expert" interviews reporting the improbability of a jump across continents to now, a short few months later, laypeople now demanding a moratorium on African travel. Like all things, the reality of what should have been and still could be done to prevent a pandemic lies towards the center of these ideas.
To backtrack a little, a broad world-view approach should be taken -- this is not Ebola specific; this is just how the world is now and should be acknowledged when doing this type of work. Ebola serves as the best current case study to date showing how we are all interconnected and so, as such, to some degree any Ebola strategy needs to focus on human behavior rather than viral behavior. Detaining potential victims like criminals, limiting travel that may be critical for personal, business, or humanitarian reasons, and placing intense media scrutiny on those who develop symptoms will never guarantee containing the virus. There will always be those who slip through cracks, either accidentally or because these types of limitations frankly are human rights violations.
Ebola has spread because we intentionally allowed it to and because this Ebola outbreak is merely a reflection of the current state of human morality. The best hope we have is in placing a focus on incentivizing people to make good choices. This means promoting social justice and equality in health care, eliminating poverty even if it means we need to forego one or two luxuries that we are accustomed to, and essentially caring about others even before an infectious disease like Ebola reaches our doorsteps.
The main global morbidity and morality burdens have been neatly condensed into the Millennium Development Goals (or MDGs as they are usually referred to) that were created in 2000. They are a collection of 8 target outcomes the world has collectively agreed to work on until 2015 that are housed in the UN. They include:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2. Achieve universal primary education
3. Promote gender equality and empower women
4. Reduce child mortality
5. Improve maternal health
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7. Ensure environmental sustainability
8. Develop a global partnership for development
The current Ebola outbreak could have been prevented via an investment in all eight MDGs, but raising money for development and prevention is a lot less glamorous than the urgency associated with an impending pandemic. Despite all the access that social media and websites allow for us to see far corners of the world, it is still surprisingly easy to ignore poverty and social inequality if it is far from home. Unless an issue is adopted as part of a meme, is celebrity endorsed, or the media deems it "newsworthy", the average person has never been exposed to the multitude of issues that can snowball and become something that will eventually reach their hometown; this is how an Ebola outbreak evolved. Ebola was ignored until we were confronted with it and now we are playing a sad game of catch-up.
As an eternal optimist, I look at Ebola as an opportunity. This is the world's chance to partake in a massive paradigm shift where attention is given to issues before they become catastrophic. This is an opportunity to invest in an infrastructure that starts chipping away at the MDGs for the good of everyone. We no longer need to rely only on those who are humanitarian and charitable leaning; we are all interconnected and so anyone and everyone should be interested.
A concrete example of how this can work is seen in the case of malaria. Some estimates put the annual malaria mortality rate at around 1 million people, many of whom are under five years old. It was not so long ago that malaria plagued the United States. In fact, Hawaii is the only state that does not have the Anopheles mosquito, which is how malaria is transmitted to humans, so it is not impossible to imagine the potential for malaria at home.
According to the CDC, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a bill in 1933 that allowed for development of hydroelectric power in the Tennessee River where about 30 percent of the population suffered from malaria. While this economic improvement program was developed, the opportunity was taken to simultaneously control, and ultimately eliminate malaria within about a decade. Mosquito breeding sites were reduced by controlling water levels and insecticide applications while economic growth limited the poverty conditions that led to poor surveillance and treatment.
This can be done for Africa and Asia as well; we just need to shift the focus to the global stage now that our interconnectedness is so pronounced. For example, current projects can use Ebola donor dollars to actually invest in long-term solutions for prevention of both Ebola and other infectious diseases with even higher morbidity and mortality burdens. In South Sudan, the Ministry of Health, with the help of Real Medicine Foundation (RMF), is looking to fund an infectious disease center that would not only be able to manage Ebola cases, but also address TB, malaria, cholera, and flu which all have the potential to ultimately affect everyone on this planet if we don't invest in local strategies in the so-called "hotspots" for these diseases.
Be part of the paradigm shift. Use this as an opportunity. Assert yourself as a strong link in the interconnected web we all are. For more information on how to get involved http://www.realmedicinefoundation.org
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