As the worst Ebola outbreak in history unfolds in West Africa, the Post's Joel Achenbach explains how the deadly virus wreaks havoc on the human body. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)
August 5

THE HYSTERIA and hype over the return to the United States of aid workers Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, both infected with the Ebola virus in Africa, has been way over the top. News and social media portrayed them as some kind of pathogenic juggernauts who might carry a horrible condition to our shores. This unthinking reaction is the opposite of what is called for. These workers should be given a heartfelt salute for having the courage to serve on the front lines of a battle as fierce as any in the world today. Fortunately, both are said to be improving after treatment with an experimental drug.

Another 50 workers are being sent to the Ebola hot zone in Africa by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). They, too, deserve our respect, but even this reinforcement cadre will not be able to extinguish the virus. More manpower and contributions from around the world are urgently needed.

The Ebola virus, while deadly, is most likely not coming to the United States. The outbreak that began earlier this year has spread in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with a few cases in Nigeria. Overall, it has infected more than 1,600 people and led to 887 deaths. But it grabbed headlines in the United States only when the relief organization Samaritan’s Purse decided to bring its workers to Atlanta for treatment. Although Ebola has a high mortality rate, transmission requires close contact and exchange of bodily fluids such as blood, sweat or saliva between people. With a well-developed public health infrastructure, the virus is not likely to become a contagion in the United States. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC , noted over the weekend that the single most important thing that can be done to protect Americans is to stop Ebola at its source in Africa. That’s where the attention is needed.

The outbreak in West Africa is severe, the largest recorded to date and the first in that part of the continent, and it is important to examine the reasons for it. Two researchers, Daniel G. Bausch and Lara Schwarz, writing in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, point out that large outbreaks like this “almost invariabl[y] occur in areas in which the economy and public health system have been decimated from years of civil conflict or failed development.” While biological and ecological factors may force the virus from the forest, it is also a result of decisions by man. Economic deprivation drives people deeper into the forests to survive, enhancing their risk of exposure, they report. Then, when they get infected, poorly resourced health systems cannot cope with proper equipment and protective gear. The virus spreads from hospitals back into villages and cities. Fear and mistrust often greet relief workers trying to control it. An outbreak is sparked.

The World Health Organization is attempting to organize a $100 million response plan, and troops were deployed in Sierra Leone and Liberia to help fight the outbreak with quarantines. The Ebola virus can be stopped, but instead of hysteria, it needs a serious commitment of people and resources.