In the last two weeks, the United States has decided to send military personnel and aid workers to Africa in an attempt to help address the Ebola outbreak. Clearly, assistance is needed but decisions regarding what should be done are more complicated that sending in more people. Epidemics are not like other emergencies. There are significant health and safety dangers that need to be addressed both to those providing aid and to the world as a whole.
Unless those providing assistance are competent to provide safe medical care and the necessary supplies and equipment are available to protect health care workers, this may only make the situation worse. Adding more people to the area will increase the risk of transmission. When those traveling into the area from the outside leave, there is the risk of spreading Ebola to other regions of the world. This could turn a regional epidemic into a world pandemic. This is what happening in the 1918 Pandemic when soldiers brought back influenza when they returned from serving in World War I.
The local population in Africa is fearful of aid workers. This fear is not irrational. According to recent reports, Ebola was spread by aid workers and health care providers. This is not new. Infectious diseases are often spread in this way. A recent example is the spread of cholera to Haiti in 2010 in conjunction with relief efforts following the earthquake there. According to reports, this resulted in killing over 5,000 and infecting 300,000 others with cholera.
What will be most effective in preventing the spread of Ebola are isolation and improvements in basic hygiene, such as the use of effective hand-washing techniques. The local population needs to understand the measures they must take to protect themselves as they care for their loved ones who are sick. Local caregivers need to know how to provide care safely. This will be much more effective in the long run than building hospitals.
In this country, we admire and honor those who rush in to help others at great personal risk. Although admirable in many situations, in epidemics characterizing such actions as heroic can be a grave mistake. Rushing in to help may simply increase the body count and it may put the entire world at risk.