Ebola is the nightmare disease. It is messy, virtually incurable and usually fatal.
It is also, in all probability, less likely to kill Canadians than the common flu.
Still, the scare is on. When Ebola was confined to West Africa, it was viewed as one of those exotic illnesses that people there contract. But it was seen as largely irrelevant to us.
No more. Now that it has reached the United States and Europe, it is front-page news.
A recent poll for CNN estimates that 27 per cent of Americans worry that they or their family members will get Ebola.
“I have never seen a health event strike such fear and terror, well beyond the affected boundaries,” World Health Organization director general Dr. Margaret Chan said last week.
Politicians are left walking a delicate line. On the one hand, they don’t want to create panic. On the other, they want to be seen doing something.
That’s why Canada, along with the U.S. and Britain, is sending inspectors to select airports to take the temperature of passengers who appear feverish.
This is not likely to do much good. The virus has a three-week incubation period during which the victim demonstrates no symptoms. An air traveller arriving in Canada could be infected without knowing it.
Dr. Richard Schabas, Ontario’s former chief medical officer of health who now does a similar job for Hastings and Prince Edward counties, calls airport screening “a complete waste of time and money.”
The Canadian Press reports that similar airport screening efforts taken during the SARS scare of 2003 and the H1N1 flu epidemic of 2009 were ineffective.
Most experts agree it would be better to focus on fighting the virus at its source — in Africa.
Yet so far, the world’s response has been agonizingly lethargic.
In September, Canada offered $2.5 million worth of medical supplies such as rubber gloves. But it took almost a month to free up a military plane capable of flying some of that equipment to West Africa. Other supplies were sent by the much slower sea route.
Meanwhile, the disease marches on. The WHO now estimates that 70 per cent of those who contract Ebola will die.
In terms of fatalities, Ebola lags well behind the big killers. Just under 4,500 have died in this latest outbreak. Malaria, by comparison, is estimated to kill more than 500,000 a year.
Still, Ebola has potential. Its infection rate is growing .The WHO now says that by next month, it expects to see between 5,000 and 10,000 new cases a week in West Africa — up from the current rate of 1,000 a week.
“If you’d asked me two or three months ago, I would have said Ebola was not a big deal,” Schabas said. “I have more respect for it now as a public health threat — in West Africa.”
His point is that, despite its spread, the Ebola epidemic remains largely confined to one of the poorest regions of the globe.
“This couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world,” he says.
Most experts agree that the virus could never gain such a hold in areas like North America or Europe that have sophisticated health-care systems.
Yet this doesn’t mean Ebola can’t strike here. In Spain and the U.S., it already has — with two nurses infected and one man dead.
Schabas says he isn’t surprised that Ebola made it to North America. “It’s more of a surprise that there haven’t been more cases,” he says.
The real question is the degree of danger Ebola poses to Canadians. Schabas says that since the disease is most infective when the patient is direly ill, those who need truly worry are health-care workers — and they can be protected
Let us hope his dark optimism is not misplaced. Last year, according to Canada’s Public Health Agency, 331 people died of influenza. With luck, the flu will continue to pose more of a danger to this country than Ebola.
With luck, the freighter containing the rest of those Canadian medical supplies will eventually arrive in West Africa.
With luck, there will still be enough stevedores alive to unload them.