Why weren’t we ready for Ebola?

(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)
(Andrea Bárcenas/AQ)

The Ebola outbreak could have been prevented, said Janice Graham, a medical anthropologist.

The outbreak which has been going on for months in West Africa has been on everyone’s minds and in the media causing panic even in North America as public health doctors are coming back home infected. There have been almost 5,000 deaths and more than 14,000 cases, according to the World Health Organization.

Graham was in Burkina Faso in West Africa when Ebola first broke out at the beginning of the year.

“At the time, it was just another disease breaking out and people didn’t expect it would turn out as it has,” said Graham. “Had the world responded, we wouldn’t be at the state we are in today.

“Six months ago, this could have been stopped.”

Graham, a professor at Dalhousie University, has worked implementing vaccine programs in African countries. She talked about her research and work at a lecture at St. Thomas University on Thursday. About 70 people attended, including President Dawn Russell.

The World Health Organization estimates two million lives are saved each year worldwide by vaccines.

“If we can give people these vaccines and prevent the spread of pandemic and epidemic diseases, then it prevents the need for emergency procedures or responses in these countries,” said Graham.

Over the last decade, WHO’s power has declined and there has been an overall weakening of public health in the past 40 years, said Graham.

For these developing countries, healthcare barely exists. As a result, there is more dependency on funding from private companies who may not have the same goals as organizations like WHO, said Graham.

Graham said that the privatization of vaccinations increases cost, which means many people who need the vaccine are not getting them.

“It’s one thing to create the vaccine and know the vaccine works, but it’s another thing to get that vaccine to the people who need it. And it’s another thing to get into the regular program so it’s available regularly. You don’t have to have emergency situations before that happens.”

The privatization of global public health and its ineffectiveness in getting poor countries the help they need is a big reason Ebola was not stopped sooner, said Graham. She said Ebola is a perfect example of why global public health needs to be fixed.

Graham said if the global health community focused more on prevention than solutions to emergencies, we would be better off.

“We seem to live as a society basically stomping out fires,” she said. “I’m not saying a vaccine is not a thing to be working towards, but six months ago when we saw Ebola happening in Guinea, they could have sent people in, they could have brought in education, they could have brought in all the fresh water. It could have been solved.”

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