Monday, 20 October 2014

Africa's killers

Last week the Prime Minister made a speech about the Ebola crisis facing parts of Africa and I was rather taken aback when he made the following comment:
Ebola is the 'biggest health problem facing our world in a generation.'
No one can argue that the present Ebola outbreak is horrific and clearly having a terrible impact in some parts of Africa. However, two things struck me about this statement. Firstly, the Ebola outbreak has been around for some time, yet, it is only now that western governments, including our own and the USA, seem to be responding with anything approaching adequate resources. Could this be because we have one or two cases of the disease on our own shores and so now the illness is being taken seriously?

Secondly, and to my mind more importantly, is the Ebola outbreak really 'the biggest health problem facing our world in a generation'? I well remember the gradual emergence of news in the 1980s of a disease that was devastating parts of Africa and various communities in western countries. I remember the chilling government advert, accompanied by images of tombstones and John Hurt's voice, shown across the television channels. I remember meeting people my own age with AIDS who were at that time living under a death sentence. A couple of years ago in Kenya I was struck by how many public signs and warnings there were about the continued threat of HIV/AIDS. Is Ebola really a greater threat to the world than HIV/AIDS? Does this sort of hyperbole help or hinder in situations like the one we face at the moment with Ebola?

Then my attention was drawn to this graph by Paula Gooder which seems to suggest I was right in questioning the statement.

The NGO, co-founded by Matt Damon and Gary White, points out that 3.4 million people a year die as a result of a water related disease. This dwarfs the impact of Ebola and we have the means to address this problem, but of course it doesn't really impact on most of us living in the west.

I'm pleased that David Cameron and Barack Obama are finally addressing the Ebola outbreak and its impact on various countries in Africa. I support the allocation of resources to deal with the crisis and want to see other countries respond in the same way. But when the Ebola crisis is over I also hope that our governments are prepared to invest the same commitment of time, energy and resources to the other much 'bigger' health problems facing the world in our generation, even if they don't pose the same threat directly to us as they do to our brothers and sisters in other parts of our world.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Hmm. Unless something miraculous happens it is reasonable to expect that Ebola will get past the TB/hunger mark by Christmas, and - if nothing more meaningful is done - it will go way past the AIDS count by next summer - and keep on going. Cameron's words actually make me think that the establishment is starting to realise what a 'doubling time' of three weeks actually means.

Philip Ritchie said...

Sam, I don't doubt that Ebola is serious and that if nothing is done then Ebola will increase as a problem and I say that in my post and welcome the response. However, Nigeria has demonstrated it is possible to contain and eradicate Ebola. HIV/AIDS has been devastating some African countries for decades and lack of clean water killing millions world wide annually as has Malaria. So to claim Ebola is the 'biggest' problem for a generation is hyperbole. Some of the last generations 'biggest' problems are still very much around and still the 'biggest' problem for many who have never even heard of Ebola and what frustrates me is that when some people use the term 'world' they really mean 'the wealthy west'.

Sam Charles Norton said...

I sincerely hope that you are right and I am wrong. What worries me isn't the impact on the West (unless we are really stupid) but what is going to happen to the three countries at the centre of the outbreak; and then, in turn, to other places if the outbreak widens. I don't think it will be long before the three become completely 'failed states' and return to a pre-industrial pattern of life.

The Church Mouse said...

That chart has been doing the rounds, but is suspisious to me. It is comparing deaths based on 2012 data for the whole of Africa with a real time count of an emerging outbreak of ebola in West Africa. All the other numbers on that chart are coming down, whilst ebola is spreading exponentially. Not to mention that the WHO and all the experts say the official figures for ebola "vastly understate" the reality. Here's a worrying chart, for example

As Sam says, exponential spread of a killer disease is cause for the world to take action.

Philip Ritchie said...

Thanks for drawing my attention to the other chart Mouse and as I said before I don't doubt the seriousness of the Ebola crisis. My point is simply that there are many other killer diseases and illnesses out there, many of the preventable, which are killing large numbers of people yearly, yet these are seen as acceptable by the west if our relative inaction on many of them is any indication. My final paragraph states my support of the action being taken by our government over Ebola but it goes on to ask that we also address these other issues if and when the Ebola crisis is addressed... unless of course we don't think millions dying for want of clean water is something for us to worry about because the numbers aren't increasing exponentially and we aren't threatened by it.