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Ebola panic in America might help save lives in Africa

Tuesday's announcement that a man in Dallas is the first confirmed case of Ebola unknowingly brought onto American soil has prompted a predictable amount of hysteria in the United States: "Ebola in the US" was one of the top trending topics on Twitter for hours after the news broke, and there are reports of people bulk-buying bleach and keeping their children home from school in Texas.

That panic is understandable but unnecessary. Ebola has a worryingly high mortality rate, and its spread in West Africa, most notably in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, has been unprecedented, but for a person to contract Ebola, they need direct contact with an infected person's blood, vomit or feces during the contagious period. The U.S. health-care system is well-prepared to isolate and treat the infected person before they have a chance to infect others, limiting the risk of a large-scale outbreak.

In an ideal world, America's Ebola panic will come with a silver lining: a recognition that Ebola is a truly global problem, and protecting the health of Americans will probably start by saving the lives of thousands of people in West Africa.

Americans already seem well aware that helping other nations with their health problems can help Americans — a 2013 Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 68 percent of respondents felt that spending money on improving health care in developing countries would help protect Americans from infectious diseases such as SARS, bird flu and swine flu.

However, it was only two weeks ago that the United States announced it would be sending 3,000 troops to West Africa to help fight Ebola. It was a big move, expected to cost $750 million in the next four months, but it came only after criticism from African leaders at what they saw was a delay in the mobilization of the United States' considerable resources. Remember, for countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, this Ebola outbreak has been a problem since December, and they have struggled to contain it on their own.

"The international community, including the international health system, bilateral donors, and the general public have not taken the Ebola epidemic in West Africa seriously enough and this inaction is leading the epidemic to quickly spiraling out of control – perhaps to the point of no return," Karen Grépin, an assistant professor of Global Health Policy at New York University, writes in an e-mail. "It is going to require a major rethink of the response and massive influx of new resources (financial and human resources) — both of which need to happen immediately."

Many international organizations and organizations have suffered health-care cutbacks in recent years. Critics have focused especially on the World Health Organization (WHO), which bills itself as the “coordinating authority on international health work" but has been described as “a shadow of its former self" because of recent cuts, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the main body dealing with Ebola in the United States, also has had its budget cut by $600 million since 2010, according to the Huffington Post. This is a big problem, as the scale of the money involved to fight Ebola is huge — the United Nations recently asked for $1 billion to aid the fight.

A panic in the world's largest economy could well help raise the stakes, Gelpin says. "If this case in Texas helps to raise the alarm bells, and helps to mobilize these resources, then yes, I think it can help," she writes.

"Raising public awareness probably does have the potential to make things better in Africa perhaps through things like donations to humanitarian aid organizations, for example," Thomas Geisbert, a professor at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston who has studied Ebola for years, explains, pointing to how the outbreaks in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have revealed the fragility of their health systems. "One of the challenges in West Africa has been the poor public health infrastructure and running low or not having basic items such as proper protective gear (gloves, gowns, face protection, etc.)."

America's pharmacetical industry might be an important factor. Over the summer, two Americans who contracted Ebola while working in West Africa were treated with an experimental drug produced by a San Diego-based company. That drug will not be used to treat the patient in Dallas, but only because its supplies have run out, Britain's Guardian newspaper reports.

There are reports that the drug has been held up by government bureaucracy for years. “This is something that, given the emergency, the government could have moved a little faster on, quite honestly,” Robert Garry, a professor of microbiology at Tulane University, told Businessweek recently. An outbreak in the world's largest pharmaceutical market may increase the momentum (notably, a number of publicly listed pharmaceutical companies saw their share prices jump after the Ebola case in Dallas was announced).

Not everyone is convinced that an Ebola case in Dallas will prompt more international action from Washington. Laura Seay, an assistant professor of government at Colby College who focuses on African politics, says she can't imagine much more U.S. commitment than the commitment of troops announced in September (which was itself largely driven by U.S. citizens getting infected, she notes), though it is possible that Congress could gain interest in airport screening and other preventative measures.

There may also be a danger that a public panic about Ebola could prompt short-sighted strategies. At one recent briefing, WHO Assistant Director General Bruce Aylward singled out travel bans as an especially flawed tactic against Ebola. "That's when you're going to get killed, because this virus will exploit it," Aylward said. "The more difficulty you have with travel and trade, the harder it is to have an appropriate response there and elsewhere, which means this disease is getting more and more ahead of us."

However, an American Ebola panic could be the impetus for more smart action to combat the threat posed by Ebola in West Africa. The CDC recently estimated that Ebola could affect as many as 1.4 million in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone by the end of January, and America's panic was caused by just one person.