Once upon a time, Ebola was a virus that attacked only poor people in the ‘developing’ world. Rich people in ‘developed’ countries didn’t catch nasty diseases like Ebola. Their wealth immunised them. They had nice, clean hospitals and lots of doctors and nurses who practised high-tech medicine.
All the same, even in the rich First World, poor people often got a raw deal. Many of them simply couldn’t afford health insurance. They were Third-World citizens in the First World. So they died from chronic diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure. Not as traumatic and swift as death by Ebola. But still. Poverty significantly reduced their chance of surviving expensive illnesses.
Then there were those deadly epidemics that sometimes broke out in the First World: polio, measles, mumps, chickenpox, whooping cough and influenza. These diseases affected both the rich and the poor. But, naturally, it was quite a strain on the poor to cough up the money for medical care.
In 1918-1919, millions of people across the world died of influenza. The scale of the crisis was so vast that resources were immediately invested in research. The catastrophe forced scientists to develop a vaccine to combat the virus. Returns on the investment were guaranteed. There was a huge global market for the influenza vaccine. Disease was a very profitable business.
By contrast, when the Ebola virus emerged in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) almost 40 years ago, it was seen as an ‘African’ problem. Named after the Ebola River, the virus was, at first, contained within small villages. And it soon disappeared. Or so it seemed.
POOR AND EXPENDABLE
I suppose it didn’t make good economic sense then to try to develop a vaccine for Ebola. The market was small and the people who needed it were poor and expendable. Now, the virus has reappeared and it isn’t staying put in West Africa.
Ebola has flown across the Middle Passage to North America; and it’s also in Europe. In the rich world! All it takes is one infected person to start an epidemic, as Malcolm Gladwell reminds us in The Tipping Point. The Ebola River is flowing swiftly. And drug companies are now hustling to develop a vaccine.
Professor Peter Piot, director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at the University of London, tells the story of how he and his colleagues discovered the Ebola virus. In 1976, while he was still training in Belgium to become a microbiologist, a blood sample came to the lab in Antwerp on a commercial flight from Kinshasa.
The sample was taken from a Belgian nun who had fallen ill in Yambuku in deep rural Zaire, as the DRC was then known. It came with a question: Was it yellow fever? It was not. Piot and his teammates injected mice with the blood and after several days they started to die off. Mice of the world are going to rise up against scientists one of these days.
The Ebola virus was eventually isolated. But there’s a terrible twist to the story. According to Piot, nuns in Yambuku who operated a mission hospital were using unsterilised needles to give vitamin injections to pregnant women. The nuns accidentally infected them with Ebola. It is stories such as this that make conspiracy theorists sound almost sane.
One of the tragedies of the current Ebola epidemic is the way the entire continent of Africa is being stigmatised as the land of disease and death. Some of us conveniently forget that the origins of modern medicine are in ancient Egypt, not Greece. It is Imhotep, not Hippocrates, who ought to be acknowledged as the Father of Medicine.
And we don’t have to go all the way to ancient Egypt to find evidence of sophisticated knowledge of medicine in Africa over several centuries. On October 17, 2014, the Boston Globe published an article by Ted Widmer: ‘How an African slave helped Boston fight smallpox’.
In 1721, the deadly disease ravaged the city. It was Onesimus, an enslaved African, who enlightened his supposed ‘master’, Cotton Mather, about the science of inoculation against smallpox. This is how Onesimus described the process: “People take Juice of Small-Pox; and Cutty-skin, and Putt in a Drop.”
Mather interviewed other Africans who had been vaccinated and who had the scar on their arm to prove it. He became an advocate of inoculation and tried to persuade the goodly citizens of Boston to try the preventative measure. His house was firebombed.
As Widmer observes: “There was a racial tone to their response as well, as they rebelled against an idea that was not only foreign, but African (one critic, an eminent doctor, attacked Mather for his ‘Negroish’ thinking).” How dare a ‘Negro’ teach white people about disease control?
The big lesson of the present Ebola epidemic is that continental Africans must reclaim the legacy of Imhotep. They need to put in place sustainable systems of health care. They cannot continue to be chronically dependent on the West to ‘help’ them out of one crisis after another. They must take charge of themselves. As our own poet Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze puts it so eloquently, “Aid travels with a bomb.” Just think of those pregnant women injected with Ebola.