Tue | May 23, 2017

Ebola: I'm more scared than you think

Published:Sunday | October 12, 2014 | 10:00 AM

Orville Taylor

Apart from it sounding like a rural Jamaican referring to the cricket player who is about to launch the ball, there is nothing amusing about the dreaded disease Ebola, which has quickly found its way to the United States.

Liberian Thomas Duncan took a flight to the USA to see his family and fell ill. The issue of the delay in his admission in a Christian hospital, the selective administration of the experimental drug, and the correlation with his race and, perhaps, nationality raise questions that only the most naïve could suggest have nothing to do with discrimination.

Unfortunately, with all the platitudes from the Americans, Duncan died, and in his death, there is both a basis for scepticism and hope for the future. The silver lining in the cloud is that Ebola is in the USA and innumerable Americans have been exposed to it. Duncan is the first, but it takes up to 21 days for symptoms to show. Infected people of all races could be popping up in the USA, because they will enter the country symptom-free.

All protocols have to be tripped in now, because it is no longer an obscure disease affecting some other people in a 'backward' part of Africa, where the average American doesn't know how to find on a map. It is not even significant that Sierra Leone and its neighbours in West Africa produce large amounts of the world's diamonds and other minerals, which redound to the benefit of many American millionaires.


Something is just not right about this Ebola disease. True, it is an aggressive virus, for which there has been no treatment. But it was discovered in Africa almost a decade before the first HIV case was observed in the USA. Yet, as deadly as it is, why was there no massive effort made to find a cure? More interestingly, how coincidental it is that an experimental 'cure' suddenly popped up to treat three American philanthropists, yet Duncan, the Liberian, was not offered the treatment because it ran out? I am counting on the Americans to find a cure, if out of pure self-interest. Once that occurs, Jamaicans will benefit.

Still, for all the time I spent in biology class, I cannot make sense of the explanation of how transmissible the virus is. Somebody is not being straight. My first question is, how does the virus get passed from an infected person to another? There is the standard fare, about body fluids. Thus, the blood, sweat and tears, as well as the pleasure secretions, are prime candidates. But is it simply touching human excrement or secretions?

Given that the Ebola virus is 80nm in diameter, compared to HIV, which is 100-120nm, why is there such fear that a simple contact with the skin will lead to infection? Research suggests that particles that are more than 40nm across cannot penetrate human skin, which is described by biologists as having low permeability. By the way, the chikungunya virus is about 60-70nm, while the dengue virus is between 40 and 60nm in diameter. Thus, the dengue virus is just on the size threshold of penetrating the skin, vector or no vector.

So, then, if the virus is twice the size that is necessary for micro particles to enter the body, why is there such hysteria regarding the contact with bodily fluids. Typically, nurses, doctors and other health-care workers disinfect themselves when they are dealing with body fluids and other biohazards. When HIV-positive persons are being treated, the health staff are not dressed up like escapees from Apollo 13 or like the protagonists in the life-imitating-art film, Outbreak, which eerily was released in the USA in 1995, when the disease surfaced aggressively in the Congo.


What is so different about the transmission of Ebola? Everybody knows that if you come in contact with any type of body fluid, you wash, rinse and keep your fingers out of your orifices.

Why then did a doctor fall ill in Sierra Leone and Nigeria, or the nurse in Spain, or the dozen persons who assisted the pregnant Liberian woman whom they, along with Duncan, were rescuing? Is it that all those persons had sores and the virus splashed into the micro wounds? Or is it that the virus is not really simply passed by touch but can be airborne like flu and other microbes? Does that explain the total wrapping up of all exposed parts of the Western health workers? And, despite the abundance of caution, how did they catch it?

And yet, I cannot deny trying to frighten you, but the Ebola virus has been reported to remain alive for weeks in blood and on contaminated surfaces for hours. As with so many other microorganisms, can ordinary flies feed on the contaminated bodily fluids and transport the virus when they 'pitch' on the healthy person? Is it preposterous that it can indeed survive for a period long enough for it to be transmitted via any of the three major mosquito species living here?

If the virus is so resilient, can it survive in the gut of the mosquito and be passed on when we swat the insect, carrying the blood from an earlier victim? As a point of correlation and consideration, do you know that Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the epicentres of the new Ebola outbreak, have the highest and seventh-highest malaria mortality rate in the world?

Nevertheless, Ebola is a bigger threat to Jamaica and the Government than the recent poll indicating that Andrew Holness is twice as popular as Portia Simpson Miller. Dallas has enough Jamaicans to merit an honorary Jamaican consulate. Furthermore, it is just over two hours by plane to (Kingston 21) Miami, Florida. And last time I checked, there were more than 10 flights between those cities daily.

Chikundengue was the warning; this is the check!

Dr Orville Taylor is senior lecturer in sociology at the UWI and a radio talk-show host. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and tayloronblackline@hotmail.com.