PARIS – Judging by the media coverage in the United States and Europe of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, one might conclude that conditions in the affected countries are gradually improving. But, though the epidemic is no longer a front-page story, the virus is far from being contained. On the contrary, it remains a serious global health threat.
I recently traveled to Conakry, the capital of Guinea, together with French President François Hollande, and then visited Macenta, a rural district in the country’s forest region, close to where the outbreak began. In both places, I witnessed firsthand the virus’s devastating impact: suffering, fear, despair, and, ultimately, death. Even the trivial has become weighted with meaning: no one shook hands.
The truth is that the Ebola virus continues to spread – and quickly. Granted, it has been contained in Liberia, but only in Liberia, and even there, there is no way to ensure that another outbreak will not occur.
Ebola is spreading in ways that differ from what we have previously seen. The virus does not spread as rapidly as many others, such as influenza, which in the past limited the scale of epidemics, particularly because outbreaks were confined to rural areas. But this time, the virus has entered cities and towns, making it especially dangerous. High population density provides fertile ground for any virus, let alone Ebola. West Africa’s treacherous combination of widespread poverty, scarce medical resources, and crowded urban areas can be devastatingly deadly.
Nearly 7,500 people are reported to have died from Ebola this year. More than 16,000 are reported to have been infected. These are ballpark figures, and while they provide important information about the trajectory of the epidemic and the effectiveness of response efforts, officials warn that the real numbers are probably far higher.
Health is a global public good. In most countries, the right to health is enshrined in the constitution or legislation. The right, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), includes “access to timely, acceptable, and affordable health care of appropriate quality.” But, in the case of viruses like Ebola, few states, if any, can issue such guarantees.
From a moral point of view, it is incumbent upon the international community, with its institutions, authorities, resourceful businesses, and individuals – as well as its knowledge and wealth – to deploy the necessary means to stop the spread of Ebola. The imperative is equally strong from a purely self-interested point of view. If the virus is not quickly contained, everyone – every country – will be at risk.
The good news is that Ebola can be contained. Eventually, it can be eradicated. If we are to achieve this, however, the virus must be understood and diagnosed. Its spread must be prevented, and treatment must be offered.
Though there is no clinically proven vaccine against Ebola, this could soon change. Since the outbreak of the virus in March, the Institut Pasteur, an independent, non-profit research organization, has worked to understand how the virus can be contained and what treatment can be offered. Our researchers are tracking the spread of the virus to understand how epidemics evolve, and we are working to empower local scientific and medical personnel. We expect to have two vaccine agents ready for clinical trials in 2015.
The Institut Pasteur’s Ebola Task Force is fighting the virus on the ground in West Africa and in the laboratory in France, studying the virus and how it spreads, and leaving no stone unturned to find a medical solution that will stop this outbreak and prevent new ones. Together with the WHO and non-governmental organizations including Médecins Sans Frontières and the Red Cross and Red Crescent, the Institut Pasteur is committed to fighting the virus and its causes.
Countries around the world have pledged support, financial and otherwise, to tackle the most immediate concerns: helping affected people and communities. Many countries already contribute to research into the causes, spread, and treatment of the Ebola virus. An international “coalition of the willing” has been established, and we call on all states, relevant organizations, interested businesses, and qualified individuals to join it. Together, we can and will see the end of Ebola.