Week on Senegal #0.5: On Ebola

I write these words on Thursday, October 9, 2014.

Yesterday, I wrote that I would write one blog per day, each one concerning a different characteristic of Senegal. I also asked a few friends if they had anything specific they wanted me to talk about. A couple of them mentioned Ebola. Since I wish to ensure to all of you that I am fine from Ebola, I’ve written a little something-something on it, but since it’s not exactly a blog about Senegal, I’ve chosen to number it as the “0.5th” blog in this series.

The weeks before Pre-Departure Training, Ebola began to gain a lot of attention in the American public. Needless to say, it became a huge concern for many of the Fellows and their friends and family. It’s important to inform, though, that by this time Senegal had not a single case of Ebola. Global Citizen Year staff were always on top of the situation, though, informed with the latest news about the outbreak from the best sources. The organization felt that it was safe for us Fellows to come to Senegal, and advised the Fellows and their families to continue with the program. As a precaution, they eliminated Public Health apprenticeships and all site locations near the Guinean border. However, they also gave each Fellow the liberty to choose if they wanted to switch countries. Some Fellows switched. Others—among them, I—didn’t.

In a strike of pure irony, Senegal had its first case of Ebola on August 29th—the exact same day we had arrived—and the case was in the city of Dakar—the exact same city we were in. Even with this new case, neither I nor the organization were shaken. The rules of the game had not changed. We would monitor the progress and see where we’d go from there. As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. Up to date, that case is the only one Senegal has had. The infected person was a Guinean student who came to Senegal for a better shot at surviving. Boy, did he survive. He was better in no time, and was escorted back to Guinea on a government-owned jet (for safety reasons).

I understand why many people are concerned about Ebola. The statistics are scary-looking, the projections scarier-looking, and the symptoms are somewhat terrifying. It’s been all over the news, and many people have an irrational fear that it will soon be all around the world as well. However, the truth of the matter is this: I have no reason at all to worry extensively about it, and neither should you.

As of today, October 9, there have been a little over 8,000 suspected cases and nearly 4,000 deaths due to Ebola. Projections say that, unless measures are done to contain the virus, there will be about 20,000 cases by November. While I too agree that it’s pertinent that international efforts contain this outbreak to the best of its capabilities for the sake of saving lives, I also think it’s necessary to put these numbers into perspective in the public eye. The three mainly-affected countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea) have a combined population of roughly 160 million people. When you do the math, that means that (give or take) 0.005% of the population has contracted Ebola. Doesn’t seem like much now, does it? We must remember that Ebola is not an easily spreadable disease.

We must also remember that the countries affected by this outbreak have had trouble containing it due to their lack of resources. Those 8,000 cases are not an example of the power of the Ebola virus, they’re an example of what happens when a country has a weak health infrastructure. I am confident that I am safe from Ebola because Senegal has a much stronger infrastructure than these other countries, and the government has done a top-notch job at informing the public. Every few days, my phone gets a text from the Minister of Health to remind me to wash my hands, and each commercial break on TV has at least two commercials about Ebola. I can even call a toll-free number to learn more about the virus if I wish to! Knowledge is power, and here in Senegal, people know how to deal with Ebola.

The Ebola outbreak is not a reason for mass panic. It is not, as some believe, the next big killer in the world. If we want to talk about big killers, we should talk about malaria. This week only, more children under the age of 5 will die from malaria than people have died from Ebola in the past 10 years, and that’s considering the fact that deaths from malaria have reduced a drastic 50% in just the past two years. Had Western countries given over the years the attention to malaria that they’ve given to Ebola in these few months, a lot more lives could have been saved.

While I might believe that Ebola is getting a little too much coverage, I do think there’s something positive in all the hoopla. I hope that Ebola, instead of bringing people into panic, will bring people into awareness of world health issues. Ebola should really be considered a call to action to the international community to ensure every human can have access to both proper healthcare and proper knowledge about health. If this can be achieved, all diseases—Ebola included—will see reduced statistics, and people everywhere can live longer, healthier lives. So I ask all of you to reframe this outbreak in a different light, and see what it means in the grand scheme of things. I believe it’s a grand opportunity for all of us to learn about how we view world issues.

But lastly, trust me. I am safe.