The Firestone Ebola Answer?

October 16th, 2014

Yesterday the UN Security Council was told that Ebola was ‘winning the race’ and if not stopped, the world would ‘face an entirely unprecedented situation for which we do not have a plan’.

4,447 people have died so far (many think that’s a cautious estimate), there are estimates of up to 20,000 infected.  The Centre for Disease Control and Prevention says ‘infections could reach 1.4 million in 4 months’.   And as we’ve all heard on the news most of those affected so far are families who care for people who are ill, and health workers.

Ebola is terrible and scary.

The rampant spread of Ebola is at least in part about poverty.

Take Liberia for example one of the countries most affected. Average per capita income is less than $500 a year, the literacy rates about 60% and its health system has been shattered through years of conflict.  The disease is spreading because the resources to contain it haven’t existed.

By contrast the company Firestone, operating in Liberia, claim to have ‘stopped Ebola in its tracks’.  Encountering their first patient on their rubber plantation they looked for the protective suits used when treating chemical spills and quarantined the woman’s family. No one else was infected. As Ebola spread into neighbouring towns they created an isolation ward and quarantine centres.  They now report that, having placed hundreds of people with possible exposure under quarantine and treated others, only three patients remain – all of them children.

Why am I writing about this and what’s it got to do with Practical Action?

Firstly we have recently opened an office in West Africa and are just starting work there so it feels very immediate, very close to our work. Secondly I’ve been asked by my colleague Amanda Ross to write a blog linked to inequality – and this for me seems a prime example. In Liberia where you can see how resources can help contain – not do away with it all together – the outbreak. If only something similar to the Firestone approach could have been put into action quickly and across the areas affected. But also amongst the Western workers who have become infected through their work and who are often flown home to the best treatment and experimental drug treatments.

Our world is a very inequitable place.

Secondly we at Practical Action have a passion for Technology Justice. The race to find a vaccine or drug treatment I hope is a great example of companies responding to global need.

8743Western victims have been treated with new drugs such as brincidofovir made by a small pharmaceutical company Chimeric. Other companies are looking at potential treatments.  Johnson and Johnson and GSK are both working on vaccines. The legal/testing processes for getting a drug or vaccine to market have been hugely speeded up because of the emergency – maybe worrying but probably vital (one US news report said that we should all be worried because the vaccines all had bits of Ebola in them! Personally I thought that was where Edward Jenner started?).

But before I get carried away with my idea of a corporate world moved to treat the plight of people suffering (and I still believe that) I read a report on the share prices of the companies involved – seemingly the price of shares in potential Ebola drug companies are buoyant while those of people working on vaccines are a little more depressed – as companies developing cures as opposed to vaccines ‘may see more widespread use’ of their product.

Poverty makes people vulnerable to disease, to disaster, to economic shocks.  The story of Ebola to date, is an illustration of inequality at its worst.

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