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What are the causes of the ongoing Ebola outbreak?

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY with Rox Middleton, Liam Shaw and Joel Hellewell

YOU have probably heard of Ebola because of the shocking outbreak that started along the west coast of Africa in 2013: the biggest Ebola outbreak ever. 

Over the course of three years, 28,000 people were infected, resulting in over 10,000 deaths, mostly in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
There have since been three more outbreaks, all in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two of these outbreaks were snuffed out quickly before they even reached 100 infections, due to a rapid response by the Congolese government and international health authorities. 

But the third outbreak, which started last August and is still ongoing, has been described by the WHO’s deputy director-general for emergency preparedness and response as a “perfect storm.”
This latest outbreak has been bubbling away under the surface in the Kivu region along the eastern Congolese border with Uganda and Rwanda. So far, there have around 840 Ebola cases and 530 deaths (these numbers are always a “best guess” while the chaos of the outbreak unfolds). 

These numbers may be relatively small compared to the 2013 outbreak so far, but crucially the Kivu region is currently a military “red zone,” where doctors and other health workers cannot travel without armed guards due to ongoing fighting. This means the epidemic is not yet under control.
Viruses are “bad news wrapped in protein,” in British biologist Peter Medawar’s words. They effectively hijack the cellular machinery of the host to make millions of copies of themselves. 

In the case of Ebola virus, this has disastrous consequences. The virus can infect animals including gorillas, chimpanzees and fruit bats. It spills over into the human population when someone eats the meat of an animal — usually found dead or dying — that is infected with the virus. 

The virus is deadly, killing on average half the people it infects. It can take up to three weeks for the symptoms of infection to show. 

As the virus multiplies itself inside the patient’s body, people suddenly develop a fever, fatigue and headaches, followed by vomiting and diarrhoea as the illness progresses. In the worst cases the virus attacks the liver and stops blood being able to clot, resulting in blood oozing from people’s gums.
Trying to stop an Ebola outbreak in the middle of an armed conflict is a nightmare scenario. Stopping Ebola back in 2013 relied heavily on treating and isolating new cases quickly, teaching local communities about how to avoid infection and tracing people who had been in contact with confirmed Ebola cases. 

It simply isn’t possible to do any of these things well if people are having to flee their houses and health workers cannot move freely and safely.
As socialists, we should also be concerned with the conditions that brought about the armed conflict that forced people from their homes and caused an ideal situation for an Ebola outbreak. 

Back in 2014, a little-known Labour MP called Jeremy Corbyn wrote in this paper that “The conflict in eastern DRC, while nominally conducted between the Congolese forces and militia groups, has its origins in neighbouring Rwanda’s military intervention and the enormous financial power of mineral companies who can easily, through proxy forces, finance armed groups to ensure their cheap exploitation of resources.” 

This is a systematic problem. Amnesty International has traced conflict minerals from Congolese mines into products made by global electronic companies such as Samsung, Microsoft and Apple. 

Between 1997 and 2015, the world collectively put around $1 billion into Ebola virus research and development. Apple’s R&D budget for the last quarter of 2015 alone was over twice that amount. 

The extra research funding prompted by the 2013 outbreak resulted in the development of an Ebola vaccine, something few people thought was possible. 

But prevention is better than cure. Outbreaks of any infectious disease, especially ones that become full-blown epidemics, are not completely random events. They disproportionately occur in some of the poorest places in the world, where there is little access to healthcare and sanitation. 

Countries in Africa have been deliberately exploited and underdeveloped by colonialist capitalist nations for hundreds of years. We need to move beyond deploying international doctors to countries after outbreaks have already begun and towards removing the economic system that prevents these countries from having robust healthcare services in the first place.


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