Africa, a land of indescrib- able beauty, is once again the site of unimaginable pain and suffering.
Through the years, its nations have been wracked by civic wars, droughts and famines. Those have not disappeared. But now four African countries — Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria — are struggling with the largest outbreak of Ebola in history. Nearly 1,000 people have died, most of those in Liberia.
It is a virus with no known cure, but treatment regimens are having some success. The first recorded outbreak of Ebola was in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Nearly 90 percent of its 300 victims died. In the current epidemic, which began last December, more than 1,700 have been infected, and the fatality rate so far is about 55 percent.
Ebola has the ability to expose men and women at their best and worst.
Health-care workers and missionaries from Africa and around the world have responded to the outbreak with bravery and compassion. They have not only saved lives, but they have sacrificed theirs. In Liberia alone, 35 health-care workers, including three doctors, have died.
It takes a special kind of bravery to enter a theater of operations where Ebola is the enemy. The disease thins the blood, dehydrates the body and brings death through multiple organ failures and shock. Isolation chambers and protective practices and clothing are cumbersome but virtually eliminate the threat of contagion in a sophisticated medical center. Such protective measures are hard to maintain on the front lines.
Among those who have gone to Africa as care-givers and returned as victims were two U.S. missionaries, Dr. Ken Brantly and his assistant, Nancy Writebol, and a 75-year-old Spanish priest, Miguel Pajares. Brantly and Writebol were brought to Atlanta for treatment, Father Pajares to Madrid.
The three had something else in common. They were treated with an experimental drug, ZMapp, which was developed by Mapp Biophamaceutical in California. There are very limited supplies of the drug and its efficacy is still unknown, but there are encouraging signs. The two Americans are reported to be improving, but it’s too early to say whether that’s attributable to ZMapp or to their health when they contracted the disease and the level of care they’ve received. Pajares died.
Lack of compassion
We don’t know what the reaction was in Spain to bringing a 75-year-old priest home for treatment, but the arrival of Brantly and Writebol in Atlanta was not the finest hour for some Americans. Most prominent among them was real-estate developer and reality TV personality Donald Trump, who said the Americans who went to Africa to help should be left to receive the best level of care that could be given “over there.” But the very best level of care they could receive was here, in America, where they lived, were educated and were inculcated with a sense of compassion and courage that seems to have eluded Trump and his ilk.
Medical science holds the answers for treating and defeating Ebola, as it does other diseases that have been thought to be incurable. But that science cannot evolve in a vacuum. It takes men and women on the front lines, treating the disease, developing drugs and perfecting protocols. Ebola is a frightening disease, but there are other frightening and deadly diseases afoot. Americans do not allow themselves to be paralyzed by fear. They confront it.
Through the heroic efforts of health-care workers here and abroad, this outbreak will be brought to an end, probably by the end of the year. And by then medical knowledge will have been expanded so that the reaction to the next outbreak of Ebola or a plague by another name will be faster and better and — we trust — just as compassionate.