A Somber Anniversary: Ebola, One Year Later

Posted by Gabriel Armas-Cardona on April 1, 2015

One year ago, the WHO declared an Ebola outbreak in Guinea. Yet, it wasn’t until August that the WHO declared an epidemic of international concern. That five-month delay allowed the disease to spread unchecked throughout West Africa, leading to the worst Ebola epidemic ever.

While the crisis is ending, it is still not over. Liberia’s last Ebola patient died while Guinea recently declared a health emergency. There is no doubt that a major contributor to the crisis was the economic, social, and cultural backdrop of the region. The virus that caused this outbreak was no more lethal or virulent than during previous Ebola outbreaks. What made this crisis unprecedented was the lack of health resources of the affected countries, the global isolation of the region, and cultural norms that promoted the contagion like washing the bodies of the dead.

The global health community needs to learn how to work with local populations. While it’s easy to criticize the local populace for escalating the problem, such as by kicking aid workers out of villages, the burden is on the international experts to educate the affected regions about healthy practices. International experts may be automatically respected in New York and Geneva, but there’s no reason someone living in rural Liberia would or should listen to them. Cultural liaisons are essential to bridge that gap to even begin educating the local populace. Safety messages that implicitly or explicitly attack or reject traditional culture will be ignored by the local population. This leads to distrust and is generally counterproductive to combating Ebola. The fact that there are still communities that don’t believe Ebola is actually real is a travesty and a failure of the international community.

Ebola was a wakeup call to the world. With increasing population, globalization and interconnectedness, the danger posed by communicable disease increases. Health professionals have called for organized, integrated emergency response teams capable of combating disease anywhere in the world to limit the spread of an epidemic. While absolutely justified considered the death and destruction that “the next Ebola” could cause, the question of who will fund the endeavor is still unanswered.

Gabriel Armas-Cardona is a Legal Officer at Lawyers Collective.