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Tag Archives: ebola

“But Gough Whitlam I will never be!”

In the many tributes that flowed to Gough Whitlam, we were reminded of his impact on the geo-cultural-political map of Australia. As Cate Blanchett put it:

“I am the beneficiary of free, tertiary education. When I went to university I could explore different courses and engage with the student union in extracurricular activity. It was through that that I discovered acting.

I am the product of an Australia that wanted, and was encouraged, to explore its voice culturally.

I am the beneficiary of good, free healthcare, and that meant the little I earned after tax and rent could go towards seeing shows, bands, and living inside my generation’s expression. I am a product of the Australia Council.

I am the beneficiary of a foreign policy that put us on the world stage and on the front foot in our region. I am the product of an Australia that engages with the globe and engages honestly with its history and its indigenous peoples.”

The contrast between that optimistic era when Australia stood up and took its place on the world stage, and the pessimism and fear the nation feels now, could not be more stark.

We have Christopher Pyne fighting tooth and nail to make university education a commodity, for sale to the highest bidder. Private colleges are rubbing their hands in glee as they line up to reap the rewards of privatising tertiary education while the universities meekly fall in line under threats of having their research funding cut if they don’t.

The budget also slashed $110 million in funding from the cultural sector. Screen Australia was cut by $25.1 million, while the Australia Council lost $28.2 million.

However, George Brandis was happy to give a $1 million grant to the Australian Ballet School, to help with its purchase of a new boarding residence. Armed with that taxpayer money, the school spent more than $4.7 million on a mansion.

On the board of the Australian Ballet School is Daniele Kemp, the high-profile wife of former Liberal arts minister Rod Kemp, a predecessor of George Brandis as arts minister. Mr Kemp is now the chairman of the Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing lobby group.

Despite the obvious productivity benefits of having a healthy population, and the oft repeated promise not to cut health funding, we saw $368 million cut from preventative health measures, the closure of Medicare locals, tens of billions cut from hospital funding to the states, and the closure of groups like the Alcohol and Drug Advisory Council.

Sending a “price signal” to stop people from seeing a GP has been condemned by all health experts as being counter-productive yet, once again, the short term budget bottom line is all this government cares about.

Not content with attacking health, education, welfare, and the arts on the domestic scene, this government is systematically drawing away from our obligations as a global citizen.

Foreign Aid has been slashed by $7.6 billion with speculation that it will be further cut to pay for Tony’s war on terror both here and abroad.

We have refused to contribute to the United Nations Green Climate Fund to assist developing nations cope with global warming, cut $4 million from the UN Environment Program (UNEP), which provides advice on environmental policies and climate change negotiations, and declared coal the saviour of humanity which will lift the world from poverty.

In response to the urgent Ebola crisis, we donated a miniscule amount of money while refusing to send health workers. Excuses abounded but as they were stripped away, we still saw our government unwilling to send any physical help, outsourcing the job to one of their donors who will no doubt employ local Africans to maximise their profits.

Joe Hockey has been making noise about joining a global effort to crack down on tax avoidance while announcing an amnesty for offshore tax cheats, delaying signing the information-sharing deal signed by 40 countries while they consult with business, and slashing thousands of jobs from the ATO leaving them without the staff or expertise to pursue evaders.

Scott Morrison continues to pursue border security and immigration policies that do nothing to help the tens of millions of refugees that other countries are coping with. Instead, we are bribing officials in the world’s poorest countries to take the problem off our hands and refusing to work with the transit countries clogged with people seeking our help.

And as for our Prime Minister for Indigenous Affairs, they have been some of the hardest hit. The budget cut $534 million from Indigenous programs. Changing the pension age to 70, charging a GP co-payment, cuts to Family Benefits and changes to Newstart – all of these measures will have a huge impact on the Indigenous community.

Tony Abbott has made so many disrespectful remarks about Australia being “unsettled” before the European invasion when Australian history began and has been constantly negative about Aboriginal communities.

“Whenever I’m asked about what we’re trying to do in Indigenous policy, I say it’s really quite simple; get the kids to school, get the adults to work and keep communities safe,” Abbott said.

Former Australian of the Year, Professor Mick Dodson, responded to this by saying it perpetuated negativity about Indigenous people.

“It’s a three-piece mantra, as if we don’t have social and cultural needs, as if we don’t have linguistic needs, as if we don’t exist as a people,” Professor Dodson said. “It’s a three-trick pony – and a very small pony at that. I mean, all of those three things are about our failure, supposedly, because we’re Aboriginal. I mean the negativity actually makes people sick. The reality is many, many of us are very successful. We never hear about them from you guys [the media]. You’re too busy on the entertainment of black failure and that’s where the government’s mind seems to be and where the public discourse seems to be.”

So frustrated are the Indigenous people, they recently held a Freedom Summit in Alice Springs to elect leaders to speak for them.

Amy McQuire writes:

The summit comes a few months after NT Chief Minister Adam Giles made calls to water down the NT Aboriginal Land Rights Act, the first land rights law in Australia, in the name of “economic development”.

Tauto Sansbury is one of the organisers of the summit, and has a long history in Aboriginal affairs, including working with commissioners for the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody.

He told New Matilda the current political climate had forced Aboriginal Australia to act.

“The political climate for Aboriginal people across Australia is not good. The Abbott government has cut $543 million and is looking to cut more out of the federal budget…

“The Barnett government in WA is planning to move up to 12 000 Aboriginal people off their traditional lands and South Australia is talking about the same thing.

“We have high incarceration rates, high suicide rates, Aboriginal kids being taken off their parents and placed in out-of-home care.

“We have major issues and no one in government is listening. We don’t have people to speak on behalf of their own communities. We’ve got a problem of a very selective representation that has been picked by the federal government and that’s not acceptable to us. That’s not the outcome we’re seeking.

“Tony Abbott is supposed to be the Prime Minister for Indigenous affairs but he’s not listening to us.”

Tony is listening to Peta Credlin, Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, Maurice Newman, Tony Shepherd, Dick Warburton, Jim Molan, Warren Mundine, Kevin Donnelly, Christopher Monckton, George Pell, and the combined mining companies and armaments manufacturers of the world. He is listening to James Packer and Phillip Morris and the AHA. He is listening to big pharmaceutical firms and private hospital providers.

But he is deaf to the pleas for help from those who really need it.

When Tony Abbott said in his speech to the IPA “but Gough Whitlam I will never be!” he could not have been more accurate.

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Risk assessment

Life is a series of choices and decisions. Within the constraints of time and finite resources, decision makers must learn to prioritise – to decide what is most important.

If you listen to anyone outside Australia, the greatest challenges facing us at the moment are climate change caused by anthropogenic global warming, income inequity leading to poverty, the Ebola crisis, pollution, peak resources, health and education in developing nations, the growing tide of refugees, providing enough food and clean water, sanitation, overpopulation, unemployment, species extinction, human rights abuses, affordable housing….and a fair way down the list would be a group of some tens of thousands of disaffected testosterone-filled teenagers that someone has been crazy enough to give guns and rockets to.

When faced with these global problems, the response of the Abbott government brings into question their ability to assess risk and respond appropriately.

On climate change, our Prime Minister tells us that “coal is good for humanity” while our Treasurer denies the fact that we are the world’s largest per capita emitter and that does not even take into account our exports. (When you hear the phrase “I deny the premise of your question” that is Coalition for “I can’t hear you, here comes the Party line”)

As reported in the Guardian:

“Australia’s coal is one of the globe’s fourteen carbon bombs. Our coal export industry is the largest in the world, and results in 760m tonnes of CO2 emissions annually. The urgent goal of Tony Abbott’s government, and his environment minister Greg Hunt is to ship as much climate-devastating coal as possible, as quickly as possible.

Every day, this Liberal-National government, led by Tony Abbott, provides new examples of its nastiness, its short-sightedness, and its willingness to destroy livelihoods, communities and the environment to enrich coal barons.”

A new report by The Australia Institute “The Mouse that Roared: Coal in the Queensland Economy” demonstrates that the coal industry’s risks and damage completely outweigh its benefits.

Felicity Wishart the AMCS Great Barrier Reef Campaign Director said that the Queensland Government was prepared to risk the Great Barrier Reef, its international reputation and its $6 billion tourism industry for a coal industry that employs less people than Reef tourism, exports most of its profits and provides just 4% in royalties.

“The Australia Institute report reveals that there are under 25,000 jobs in coal mining in Queensland and 80% of the profits go overseas. This compares with 69,000 jobs in the tourism industry, and almost all the profits stay in Australia.”

When the world’s leaders met to discuss climate change, our leader couldn’t make it due to a prior engagement with Rupert to get his lines about why the war is good straight. Our deputy leader couldn’t make it because he is too busy planning thousands of kilometres of bitumen heat islands to carry millions of fossil fuel burning imported cars. Our environment minister didn’t even seem to be considered or mentioned which is hardly surprising when he points to his plan for the Great Barrier Reef as a success. Ignoring ocean acidification, warming, and salinity while approving the dumping of dredged silt and the expansion of coal ports is considered a success? Oh that’s right, you removed a few starfish by injecting each one by hand. Instead we sent Julie Bishop because she is good at stonewalling and death stares.

As representatives from the Philippines and Kiribati make heartfelt pleas about the damage being done to their nations, we have reneged on our promised contribution to the Green Fund to help developing nations deal with the havoc we cause. As marathon runners in Beijing choke on the pollution, we tell them that burning more coal will make them richer.

Everyone from the Pope to the head of the IMF has pointed to poverty and income inequity being a growing scourge, yet every action taken by this government will have the effect of increasing poverty and widening the gap. Internationally we have slashed Foreign Aid and domestically we have hit the poor with the budget from hell.

Joe Hockey and Mathias Cormann say, because the poor get more government handouts, they have more to give back when looking for spending cuts. Raising revenue will not be considered. The poor, the sick, the elderly, the disabled, the students, the unemployed, single parents, low income families – these are the people to provide Mr Hockey with a surplus to brag about. In the meantime, one in seven Australians live in poverty with that number predicted to rise.

Austerity and trickle-down economics are failed experiments which this government seems intent on pursuing despite the mountain of evidence and advice warning against such measures. As the majority of people get less disposable income, demand will dry up, production will fall, unemployment will rise, and the downward spiral will continue.

While we seem to have endless money to bomb countries, the money to help build infrastructure and provide humanitarian aid has dried up.

Our response to the Ebola crisis is hugely inadequate. The excuse about evacuation of affected health workers just will not wash. We already have in place agreements with the US about medical evacuation of military personnel to Germany should they become critically ill. Australian doctors and nurses are highly-trained and if they feel that they have adequate protective regimes in place then It is unlikely that we would be talking about a large number of people needing evacuation. Considering the urgency of addressing this emergency, I cannot believe that the US or the UK or Germany would deny health workers the same service they offer to our military personnel.

Our Immigration Minister smugly claims success for his quasi-military war on refugees. He tells us this has been the humanitarian thing to do because he cares so much about asylum seekers that he can’t have them risking their lives at sea. Unfortunately, he also cut our humanitarian intake by 7000 and has failed to successfully resettle anyone. He would rather spend billions on OSB and offshore gulags and bribes to corrupt officials of other countries to absolve us of any responsibility at all rather than a cent on helping refugees. All he has done is bottle refugees up in other countries while we sit back and refuse to help.

In response to growing unemployment, this government has removed restrictions on 457 visas encouraging employers to hire people who will work for less than award wages, no workplace entitlements and no job security. They have removed industry assistance from manufacturing to help them during a time when the high Aussie dollar hit the industry hard while giving billions of dollars in subsidies to the mining industry which caused the problem in the first place.

When Toyota, Ford and Holden leave the country for good in 2017, around 50,000 people who work in the automotive supply chain, mostly in Victoria and South Australia, will face the risk of unemployment.

Despite Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane telling us that ”Australians are smart, innovative and creative. We have the ability to remake our industry sector and the time in which to do it.”, according to European Union data from 2011, only 2.3 per cent of materials shipped out of Australia are high-tech – far less than the US, where the figure is closer to 20 per cent.

The OECD found in 2012 that Australia’s investment in high-tech industries was lower overall than other advanced economies yet the latest budget has slashed funding for research and development and decimated bodies like the CSIRO.

Remy Davison, the Jean Monnet Chair in politics and economics at Monash University, says despite the talk little has been done to create a realistic transformation scheme for industry.

”We talk about investing in smart industries and moving into high-tech industries, but nobody actually does it – not state governments, not federal governments, and to be fair the private sector doesn’t really invest in it either.”

When it comes to the war against ISIL, this is where the Abbott government steps up with seemingly unlimited resources to provide military assistance and to conduct over-the-top raids and surveillance at home, but where is the discussion about what led to the rise of this group? Where are the questions about how we are failing members of our own society so badly that they can be lured into this conflict? Where is the strategy to help young people here to feel like they belong and encouragement to help them become productive members of our society? Where is the support for our Muslim community?

Risk assessment is part of life and a crucial factor for all businesses. How much more so for a government when the consequences of their decisions are so far-reaching? We have a government who came to power with a specific agenda to which they are determined to stick. They are deaf to the advice of experts other than their hand chosen sycophants and choose to ignore the risks. On all counts, in the most pressing problems facing the world, Australia has been found wanting.

Before casting your vote at the next election, Australians should consider the risk of allowing the Abbott government to continue down the path of nationalism and corporate greed at the expense of our duty as global citizens and our responsibility to protect the vulnerable.

Budget emergency?

Six months of Abbott’s idea of belt-tightening …

February 25

The Abbott government has spent $2.5 million on lifeboats to send asylum seekers intercepted at sea back to Indonesia.

The figure, revealed in letters tabled in the Senate by Assistant Immigration Minister Michaelia Cash, indicates the government is paying more than $200,000 per lifeboat, each of which is understood to be used only once.

Fairfax Media understands the government has so far bought about 12 of the boats.

March 13

The Abbott government has confirmed plans to buy Triton surveillance drones that can watch vast stretches of the seas to Australia’s north.

The program would mean about $100 million in new facilities and infrastructure in South Australia as well as about $20 million a year in ongoing work.

The 2012 Defence Capability plan flagged the purchase of up to seven Tritons at a cost of between $2 billion and $3 billion.

April 22

Australia will make one of its biggest ever military purchases with a $12 billion order for 58 Joint Strike Fighters in a move that will lift the nation’s air combat power to among the world’s most advanced.

May 13

The Government will provide Defence with $29.2 billion in 2014-15 and $122.7 billion over the Forward Estimates – up $9.6 billion increase on the figure provided by the previous Government.

Reinstatement of the ADF Gap Year Programme will cost $18.3 million in 2014-15 and $191.8 million across the Forward Estimates.

June 7

Two new Navy supply ships will be built overseas, sparking a political fight over the Federal Government’s commitment to local manufacturing.

The Federal Government says Spain’s Navantia and South Korea’s Daewoo will compete for the tenders to replace HMAS Success and HMAS Sirius.

However, the union has welcomed the Government’s decision to build 20 new Pacific Class patrol boats at home.

Senator Johnston says he wants the local industry to build the next fleet of frigates and has allocated $78.2 million for design work.

But he says he will send the work offshore if the local industry does not lift its game.

June 10

The Australian government has set aside almost $90 million for the search for missing flight MH370— expected to be the most expensive in aviation history — but it’s possible that figure could increase.

“The government has allocated $89.9 million. I think about $25 million of that is to go the defence force for the visual search they conducted,’’ former defence force chief Air Chief Marshal Houston told the ABC.

“There’s another $60 million that’s been allocated for the underwater search.

August 4

Australia’s spy and counter-terror agencies will receive a $630 million funding boost to fight the threat of home-grown terrorism, which Prime Minister Tony Abbott says ”has not changed” and is still ”as high as it has ever been”.

August 14

HUNDREDS of millions of dollars will be spent bolstering the RAAF’s fleet — and the prime minister is in line for a new long-range jet, promising uninterrupted global travel.

The government plan — scheduled to be delivered as part of next year’s Defence White Paper — includes the purchase of up to four new aircraft: an additional two Airbus tanker-transport planes and one or two Boeing C-17 heavy lift aircraft.

August 15

THE nation’s most troubled defence project — the $8 billion Air Warfare Destroyer — is now running $500 million over budget and will be delivered at least two years late.

It is understood that the latest cost increase — estimated at $150 million — has only just been revealed by the alliance building the three warships — Adelaide-based government owned shipbuilder ASC, US giant Raytheon and Federal Government’s Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO).

September 1

The Australia Prime Minister has ordered a fleet of bombproof BMWs to protect leaders during the G20 summit this year.

BMW Group Australia confirmed the Government purchased nine BMW 7 Series 760Li security vehicles. The vehicles are BMW armoured security vehicles with identical engineering and performance specifications.

The $6.2 million fleet can withstand AK47 fire, attacks with explosive devices or armour-piercing weapons.

September 7

A local consortium is preparing to tender for the 20-plus vessels to be built for the $2 billion Pacific Patrol Boat Program

September 8

In one of the biggest and most contentious defence equipment decisions in decades, the Abbott Government will select the Japanese-built Soryu Class submarine to replace locally built Collins Class boats as the navy’s key strike weapon beyond 2030.

A decision to spend more than $20 billion on up to 10 of the Japanese vessels will be announced before the end of the year.

September 16

Australia’s military involvement in Iraq is likely to cost half a billion dollars each year, Tony Abbott has revealed

In contrast …

September 17

The Federal Government has been embarrassed over its $7 million response to the Ebola virus with an international medical group rejecting the money and demanding Australian doctors be sent to Africa instead.

“We have been very clear with the government for two weeks now we are not asking for financial support, we are asking the government to evaluate Australia’s emergency medical capacity and mobilise it on the ground in West Africa.”

At least 2,630 people have died in the worst outbreak of Ebola virus in history, which has so far infected at least 5,357 people in West Africa, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Thursday. Despite this, our government could only come up with the same amount it spent on Tony’s new car.



Each generation has its historic moments, its touchstone memories. I grew up in the 1980s, and my touchstones were the Ethiopian famine, Masters of the Universe and Transformers toys, and Ebola. For all that Ebola was a virulent disease, the outbreak was in a faraway land and affected only a few hundred people. It was horrible for those people, of course, but it’s difficult to see now why an obscure virus outbreak in third-world countries became the subject of teenage nightmares. Breathless news reports gave the unwarranted impression that the scourge of a horrible and uncurable disease was about to sweep the world and bring humanity to its knees.

It never happened, of course. Due to effective healthcare and isolation procedures, Ebola was brought back under control, its outbreak cleared, and the disease eliminated from human population centres.

In the years that have followed, the odd case of Ebola has surfaced. Few cases could be classified as “outbreaks”. Ebola has remained a remote threat and it fell out of the consciousness of the public.

Recent weeks have seen Ebola back in the news, with a far more serious outbreak than anything before in history currently spreading in western African nations. Today’s news media are full of breathless reports on a wildfire disease, out of control, an epidemic. And far more than in the 1980s, what starts as breathless reporting in the mainstream media easily evolves into sheer panic-stricken hysteria in some portions of the internet. It’s important to be aware of the facts, the real risks, and what realistic risk, if any, there is to western populations.

So what is Ebola, why is this outbreak significant, and is there really a risk of a global pandemic that will kill us all?

What is Ebola?

ebola“The Ebola virus” is a term applied to a group of related viruses, infectious viral diseases that cause a deadly kind of haemorrhagic fever in mammals. It’s a cruel disease and a frightening one; the symptoms of advanced Ebola infection are both hideous and highly dangerous.

The virus has a long incubation period – the time between infection and showing the first symptoms – of between one and three weeks. During the incubation period sufferers have no warning of the disease and its progress, and they are not infectious to those around them.

When they appear, early symptoms can seem like a mild influenza, including fever, muscle weakness, sore throat and headaches. The classical symptoms of Ebola follow later: the virus attacks the body’s internal organs, particularly the kidneys and liver and the digestive tract. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea. Another effect of the virus is to impair the ability of blood to clot, leading to internal and external bleeding. In the advanced stages, sufferers can bleed from all of the body’s orifices.

Ebola is one of the deadliest viruses on Earth; fatality rates for the different strains vary between approximately 50 and 90 percent. There is no cure. The current outbreak in Africa has a fatality rate of about 60 percent – and that’s with medical intervention.

How is Ebola transmitted?

The virus is highly infectious with contact to the sufferer’s body fluids. This includes blood, urine, faeces, vomit or even sweat. A patient is not contagious until he or she starts showing signs of the disease.

Ebola is not “airborne”: you cannot catch Ebola by breathing the same air as an infected patient. There has been one documented case of the virus spreading through the air: in 2012 a study involving pigs and monkeys resulted in infection of the monkeys from infected pigs without any direct contact. However, Ebola infects humans and pigs differently. In pigs Ebola concentrates in the lungs, causing infected pigs to sneeze and splutter much more than humans, where the virus principally attacks the liver. Human sufferers do sneeze and cough infectious droplets that can travel short distances through the air, but this form of infection would require close proximity. It is theoretically possible to catch Ebola from a large droplet but so far there is no evidence to point to aerosolisation.

How do you treat it

Ebola is a tropical disease that is thought to be carried in the wild by bats. There has been little exposure of this virulent infection in human communities, and thus there is little to no immunity already in the human population. When Ebola infects a human population, most people are extremely susceptible to it upon exposure. Despite intensive research over decades, there is currently no vaccination or prevention method available for Ebola. The only way to ensure you don’t catch it is to avoid contact with infectious materials, which can be difficult when the late stage of the disease results in significant amounts of bleeding and other fluid discharge.

It’s important to note also that you can’t cure viruses. A virus is not like a bacterium; bacteria are self-contained organisms that invade and infest a host, but remain separate to it. Viruses have no independent existence outside of a host. Viruses are, in effect, strings of DNA, and they act by embedding themselves into the DNA of the infected creature. Upon infecting a cell’s DNA, a typical virus will prevent that cell from acting normally and instead turn its machinery to churning out billions more copies of the virus, eventually breaking the cell open to infect those around it.

The problem is that, like a cancer, a virus-infected cell still looks like it belongs to the body. An infected cell cannot be returned to its pre-infection state; the only way forward is to kill that cell. Any “cure” needs to be able to identify infected cells and kill them while leaving uninfected cells intact. Human medical science is typically not very good at doing this; in some cases the effects of viral infection can make a cell susceptible to specific drugs, but there are as yet no drugs on the market that can specifically target Ebola-infected cells.

Where human science fails, the immune system normally excels. Identifying infected cells and destroying them is its sole function. But Ebola virus is also known to attack and pervert immune system cells, and even to use these cells to carry itself throughout the sufferer’s body. With the virus wreaking havoc on the body’s organs, causing massive internal bleeding and constraining the immune system’s activity, the infected host will almost certainly die well before its immune system can fight off the infection.

Given enough time, for some people, the body can rid itself of an Ebola infection. Left to its own devices, the disease is virulent enough to kill most people before their immune system can do the job, so treatment for Ebola is, simply speaking, to treat the symptoms, and to keep the victim alive long enough for their own immune system to let them recover. If the victim was healthy with a robust immune system prior to infection, the chances of survival increase.

Keeping patients hydrated and providing them with the nutrients they and their immune system need is the accepted treatment for this disease. In the case of Ebola this must be done whilst avoiding contact with infectious materials and isolating the patient from family, friends and the public. Even with full medical support, in the current outbreak, the chances of survival are only about 40%.

The current outbreak

Ebola was first identified in 1976, and was named for the region in Africa (the Ebola River) in which it emerged. From that time until the current outbreak, there have been about 1700 recorded cases of Ebola in humans. The current outbreak has so far (as of 22nd August 2014) killed well over 1400 people and infected over 2600.


(Image source: BBC)

The current outbreak affects a region of Western Africa overlapping the borders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Due to the virus’s highly infectious nature and its long incubation period, there have been many cases of travellers from these areas bringing the disease to other nations. Most significantly affected in this way are other African nations such as Nigeria and Congo, but cases have been identified as far distant as Ireland.

Unofficially, it is likely that the infection rates in Africa could be MUCH higher than the official numbers. The actual numbers are impossible to quantify, as many cases have not been laboratory confirmed and the disease is officially out of control. With a long asymptomatic incubation period, it is likely that many people are infected without yet showing symptoms. Many cases are likely to be in “shadow zones”, outside of officially monitored areas and unrecorded by medical authorities. In addition, there are currently outbreaks of Ebola-like disease in other neighboring countries not yet officially declared a part of this outbreak.

Regardless of the numbers of infected, the UN states that over a million people are affected either directly or indirectly by this outbreak.

Different strains of Ebola have different levels of lethality. The current outbreak is trending at about 60%: six of every ten people diagnosed with the virus (and under medical care) are dying despite best medical efforts.

Why it’s a crisis

The keys to dealing with an outbreak of Ebola are halting its spread and treating its victims to keep as many alive as possible. In the areas of West Africa, in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, both of these are proving problematic.

Halting the spread of the disease entails rapidly identifying and isolating all sufferers, quarantining those who might have come into contact with them, and educating populations about behaviours that contribute to the virus’s spread. Attempts to do this are ongoing but are running into difficulties due to human nature and community practices in these regions. Patients, and their families, have been seen to behave in ways that are harmful to themselves and to others. In some cases, infected patients have fled hospital, or avoided going to hospital in the first place, for fear of being restrained there to die. Families hide their symptomatic relatives to prevent them being isolated. Local burial customs further complicate matters, with some documented cases of people being infected by touching the departed during preparation of the body or during the funeral service.

Treatment, too, has its problems. The affected countries already have healthcare systems that struggle to support their populations. In many cases, healthcare in rural areas is nonexistent, and the disease has now spread into major urban centres so the lion’s share of medical resources is spent there. Despite Ebola being endemic to Africa, previous outbreaks have been in the centre of the continent, and West Africa was neither experienced in nor prepared for an infection of this type. As a result, we have seen a high number of healthcare workers succumb to the disease as response efforts scaled up, leading to a loss of expertise and resources.

The other enemy is fear. In many areas, deliveries of goods (including medicine, food and water) have ceased as couriers and drivers are unwilling to enter the infected areas. This simply contributes to the breakdown of social order and the environment of fear, and hampers those whose goal is to control the infection and help those affected.

What’s being done

It is clear that this outbreak is well beyond the capabilities of the affected nations to handle on their own. Even with contribution by the World Health Organisation and the CDC, the epidemic is currently classed as “out of control”. Medical charities such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) have deployed thousands of staff to run Ebola clinics to supplement overwhelmed healthcare systems. The WHO is providing expertise and leadership, although some have accused it of reacting far too slowly.

In the face of the unprecedented scale of this outbreak, the usual safeguards on novel treatments have been relaxed. Antiviral drugs such as ZMapp are being provided for live-action trials on the understanding that survival is unlikely with or without treatment; even though such treatments might be untested and theoretically could in themselves be harmful, the thought is that someone who’s already dying of Ebola is going to be willing to take the risks. While several people treated with ZMapp have survived, some have not, and it it far too early to say whether ZMapp or other drugs currently in testing are having any positive effects at all.

The imperative to constrain the spread of this virus has led to the imposition of a zone sanitaire: the affected regions are being closed off, with the only egress being via controlled medical checkpoints. Most international airlines have already ceased flights to and from affected areas. At the same time, entry points across the world are on high alert, with airline staff, port and dock authorities and airports being on the lookout for any travellers from affected regions showing any symptomology. This may not be enough to completely prevent the disease’s spread but should severely constrain it.

It’s important to note, finally, that even if a case of Ebola does arrive in Australia or the US – say an infected traveller arriving before they become symptomatic – the uncontrolled spread of the disease is far less likely. In the western world we already impose standards of hygiene that protect against transmission. We generally don’t come into contact with other people’s blood, urine or faeces in daily life. By the time a sufferer becomes highly infectious, they are also highly symptomatic and likely to be under appropriate medical care. We can be sure also that appropriate quarantine and control measures would be rapidly brought to bear.

Learnings for us

There are several key factors in the current Ebola scare. The first is that the current outbreak of Ebola is unlikely to become a pandemic and we, in civilised Australia, should be safe from its immediate effects. Breathless reporting of the risks to global civilisation are overstating the infectiousness and risk of this disease. Ebola may well bring African nations to their knees, but by virtue of distance and a sophisticated healthcare system and high standards of hygiene, any cases in the western world will be rapidly contained.

It’s not all good news though. We live in a global world. Conditions that affect remote third world countries nonetheless have an effect here. Our healthcare systems are on high alert for this disease and, belatedly, the western world is pouring money, personnel and resources into helping their poorer neighbours in Africa. Globalisation has had many beneficial outcomes for the western world – particularly in the availability of cheap labour and cheap goods – but it has also thrown into sharp relief the inequalities between nations.

Ebola is a zoonotic disease. Like Hendra, swine flu, rabies and SARS, a form of the virus lives in wild animal populations, but is capable of being passed to humans on exposure. The virus is not new. What is new is its introduction into human populations, and this is typically the result of increasing encroachment of human civilisation into previously wilderness areas. The unfortunate fact is that most of this encroachment, and thus the initial outbreaks of many of these diseases, occurs in third world countries with low socio-economic conditions.

The rise of new human-infectious diseases from zoonotic sources is driven by the need of poor people in Africa, in South America, and in Asia, to support themselves with a continual push into wilderness areas. Deforestation across the world is accelerating rather than slowing. As countries are progressively deforested, native wildlife is displaced, with terrible consequences for biodiversity and ecosystems. The increased interaction between humans (and domesticated animals) and wildlife which might carry novel viruses such as Ebola means that the introduction of new diseases is not likely to end any time soon. In bats, a particular virus might be relatively harmless, as wild populations have developed immunity to it over the course of millenia; but for humans, who have never encountered it, this new virus can be devastating.

We are fortunate insofar as the human-infectious strains of Ebola are not airborne. (One known strain of Ebola is at least somewhat airborne, but this strain is not harmful to humans. “By some genetic fluke, the same mutation that rendered Ebola Reston airborne apparently also left it harmless to humans.” We dodged a bullet with that case.)

It is not beyond the bounds of consideration that a new virus will be introduced to the teeming human masses in a third-world country in the near future, a virus with the deadly consequences of Ebola but the ease of transmission of an influenza. This is the stuff of fiction – for example, Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain, the movies Outbreak and Contagion, Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone. But how we would deal with such an outbreak is the subject of deadly serious consideration by epidemiologists and governments.

The long-term learning is that no nation is an island. The inequality of nations should not be allowed to continue. As long as there are impoverished populations in impoverished nations, desperately levelling their jungles at a time when the world desperately needs those jungles to be maintained, the globe will remain at risk of novel zoonotic diseases, and we may not be so fortunate next time.


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