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Denver Post: Ebola, an outbreak without borders

The Denver Post

First Published Aug 02 2014 01:01 am • Last Updated Aug 02 2014 01:01 am

If there is a modern definition of a saint, it would be someone who goes to a poor country far away to treat victims of a contagious, incurable disease.

That happens to be the path taken by Nancy Writebol, a former resident of Evergreen, Colo., who has been stricken by the deadly Ebola virus while caring for patients in the African nation of Liberia. She is one of two missionaries serving with a joint Serving in Mission/Samaritan’s Purse deployment to fall ill, the other being the medical director himself.

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There is no cure for Ebola, and most people who come down with it — as many as 90 percent — die.

If the disease sounds familiar, it should. It’s been around since 1976, with occasional outbreaks mainly in remote villages in central Africa, most frequently Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. This outbreak, in the west African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, is different in that it is no longer isolated and is out of control.

Nearly 700 people have died, an estimate almost surely low given how victims are counted. And the main organizations that have responded, such as Doctors Without Borders (DWB), acknowledge they are overwhelmed.

"We’re not stopping the epidemic," DWB’s coordinator in Guinea told The New York Times.

A Bloomberg editorial points out that health workers in other African nations "who have been through this and know how to handle Ebola" could be enlisted to help in the epidemic, or at least to train local workers on how to proceed. And the editors suggest the U.S. and European Union fund the African teams.

This is a worthy idea. Not only is an Ebola epidemic a crisis for eastern Africa, it is a potential danger to other countries, too, with air travel as the conveyor belt. A Liberian sickened by the virus landed in Nigeria in recent days and there is little stopping contagious travelers from carrying the virus far beyond that continent.

If a sick person ended up in the U.S., Ebola very likely would be contained given our level of medical care, especially since intimate contact is required to spread it, as opposed to just sneezing and coughing. But it would be a frightening intrusion and an unwelcome escalation in the history of the disease.

For now, however, the struggle against Ebola goes on in overburdened clinics of east Africa. And the saints are losing.

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