East London Humanist chair Paul Kaufman on why the West ignored Ebola


- Credit: Archant

Ebola first began to dominate our headlines earlier this year. I must confess that I had barely been aware of this dreadful disease up to then. This is despite the fact that it was first identified as long ago as 1976 when it was named after a village headmaster who contracted it during a trip to the Ebola River in Zaire.

Anyone reading about the suffering of victims and their families cannot fail to be moved, and the self-sacrifice of the doctors and nurses who risk their lives to volunteer to treat the sufferers is amazing.

However, is it too cynical to suggest that the extent of coverage now is due largely to the fear that, for the first time, the illness could spread to the west? Many stories focus on the handful of individuals who have been found with the disease outside Africa. There has been no instance of the disease being contracted in this country, but we already hear of parents in London who have been afraid to send their children to school for fear that they might be at risk.

The victims in Africa number several thousand. If the urgent action being taken doesn’t succeed then this is likely to rise rapidly. But however appalling these numbers are they are still relatively small in comparison to the victims of other tropical diseases. For example it is estimated that over a million people die each year of malaria. Similar numbers of children die from dysentery, another illness which is easily avoidable and rarely fatal in this country.

The sad truth is that if Ebola had first been identified in the West then the pharmaceutical companies would have poured millions into finding a vaccine at an early stage. However, there is no profit to be made developing and supplying drugs to poor African countries. It is also a sad truth that an underlying cause of much disease, including Ebola, is simply poverty and lack of basic sanitation, and that many deaths and much suffering would be avoided if only a fraction of the wealth in the world were spent on addressing this. More from Paul