Saturday, October 11, 2014

Ebola in the Caribbean and Latin America - a matter of when?

Ebola: Will LatAm succumb?

Christian Molinari

International news has been abuzz with the Ebola outbreak, its haunting effects on victims in West Africa and its spread into Europe and the US. So far, the epidemic has not been confirmed in Latin America, although Brazil's health ministry reported its first suspected case.

Following the death from the virus of a Liberian man in a Dallas hospital on October 8, the US government expanded airport examinations. (The screening consists of questions about a passenger's history and a fever check, which passengers can beat by taking medicine to bring down their temperature.) Previously, a nursing assistant became infected in Spain, the first person to contract Ebola outside of West Africa.

Marine Corps general John F. Kelly, the commander of US Southern Command – responsible for US military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean – admitted last month that the issue keeps him awake at night. According to Kelly, Latin America is the backdoor through which many West Africans, part of a human trafficking chain, illegally enter the US.

And if Ebola were to take hold in the Caribbean or Central America, the streaming of immigrants into the US trying to get proper medical care would be unstoppable, he said.

The numbers are frightening – with up to 1.4mn possible infections worldwide by early 2015, according to estimates, and half of the victims dying. The World Bank forecasts billions of dollars in economic losses in West Africa alone if the epidemic lasts and continues to spread. It's being called the worst calamity since the outbreak of AIDS.

In short, it's a matter of when and not if the disease will make it to Latin America.

As the 40mn-strong online activist organization Avaaz points out, the core of the epidemic boils down to a health issue, with just 0.01 doctors for every 1,000 people in Liberia. "There just aren't enough medical staff to stem the epidemic," it says, calling for international medical volunteers to help meet needs.

For Latin America, the overall sense is that while Ebola is sure to arrive sooner or later, it will not turn into an epidemic. According to statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO), many Latin American countries have more than one doctor per 1,000 citizens. Even the region's poorest country, Haiti, has 0.3 doctors per 1,000 – not a great figure, but still 30 times higher than in Liberia. The statistic goes all the way up to 6.7 for Cuba.

And a number of countries in the region are fairly well prepared to address the virus – Argentina (3.2 doctors per 1,000 inhabitants), Chile (1.0) and Brazil (1.9) are tightening security at airports.

Argentina, on epidemic alert, has already designated a number of hospitals in urban areas as 'Ebola-only' quarantine centers if cases are detected in the country. Chile, in turn, while saying it is on the WHO's list of the countries least likely to be affected, has assured that it is implementing contingency plans to be able to respond to the situation should it come up.

And Brazil has for years cooperated and shared information with Hamburg-based Bernhard Nocht Institute (BNI) for Tropical Medicine. According to Jonas Schmidt-Chanasit, BNI's virology department director, Brazil is actually very well prepared thanks to past work the institute has carried out in conjunction with local authorities regarding dengue-based viral hemorrhagic fevers. That has allowed the University of Rio de Janeiro to have a virus diagnostic center to perform tests and detect Ebola relatively quickly. Additionally, the health ministry said that 37 hospitals in 25 states are in condition to receive patients infected with the virus.

The Ebola virus – believed to be naturally hosted by fruit bats – is not endemic to Latin America, which in and of itself is an impediment to its propagation, Schmidt-Chanasit said, according to German publication DW.

In summary, Ebola will arrive in Latin America, if it hasn't already. But with proper precautions and controls, it will not have the effect seen in West Africa, and cases will be limited. Keep calm – mass hysteria and panic have never helped in any situation.

October 10, 2014

BN Americas