Dr. Mark Manary spent two weeks in Sierra Leone this past July and witnessed a “total disruption in society.”
As of November 11, 14,413 cases and 5,177 deaths due to the Ebola outbreak have been reported. Actual numbers are thought to be much higher. But what do those numbers mean? Who are these people being infected with Ebola? And how does the outbreak affect those not infected by the virus?
“The Ebola outbreak is disrupting the economy, closing schools, and limiting health care,” said Manary, a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine (WUSM). The epidemic also affects the food supply. Crops are planted every July in Sierra Leone, restrictions on people leaving their homes meant no planting occurred this July. The quarantine applies to every citizen in the area, not just those with Ebola, meaning people cannot move freely from place to place to earn their livelihoods. “The resultant food shortages will be substantial and will affect thousands of times more people than Ebola itself,” Manary said. “I expect the famine to hit at the end of this calendar year.”
While Sierra Leone and Liberia typically import food, especially rice, from other countries, imports are down as fewer ships are docking in countries affected by the Ebola epidemic. With a smaller supply of food, prices are increasing, and many people are paying 40 to 50 percent more for rice and other foods. And, as quarantines and economic losses impact people’s ability to earn money, many families will not be able to afford these high prices.
The World Bank’s analysis of the effects of Ebola on the economies of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia shows serious economic losses in each of the countries, with potential for even more devastation to the economy if the Ebola outbreak continues to grow. If the outbreak is not contained quickly, the World Bank predicts that West Africa will lose $25.2 billion by the end of 2015, with the countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia losing 2.3, 8.9, and 12 percent of their annual GDP, respectively. In his “All Things Considered” piece, John Hamilton said these numbers mean hairstylists are losing their customers, no more missionaries are buying artwork on the streets, and people are forced to live on a dollar a day. The numbers also convey the hardships of Alieu Massaly, motorcycle taxi driver in Monrovia, who told NPR that he waits two hours between passengers and worries about them touching and infecting him. “I feel bad, but what to do? [There is] no other way in this country to get money,” he said. Surrounding countries in Africa are at risk of economic losses as well, as fear of the outbreak is closing borders, reducing commercial flight traffic, and lessening trade.
The Ebola outbreak has been especially hard on children in West Africa, as 10.4 million children have been either directly or indirectly affected by the virus. In her blog, Katy Athersuch, a Doctors Without Borders staff member in Liberia, describes her interactions with one of these children. A 16-year old boy named Kollie James whose mother, step-father, younger brother and sister, uncle and aunt all died of Ebola in the past month, told Athersuch of his ambitions and his fears. “I want to study abroad and eventually become a doctor… But I don’t know where I will go to school? I cannot go back in Monrovia,” he said. “If I go back, I won’t have anyone to support me or to pay my school fees, and I will not reach my dreams. Ebola has destroyed everything. Everything has been damaged.” Kollie represents children of Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea who are affected by school closures and is just one of 3,700 children that Ebola has left without one or both parents.
Ebola also severely decreased the number of infants being vaccinated. Before the Ebola outbreak, 97 percent of children were being vaccinated for preventable diseases in Liberia. Now, only 27 percent of infants are being vaccinated. UNICEF’s Sheldon Yett reported that there has already been “cases of measles in Lofa County, which was the original epicenter of the disease in Liberia.” He warned that the progress that has been made to vaccinate for preventable diseases is being threatened by the Ebola outbreak, and that he sees “another storm cloud on the horizon here right now: That’s the storm cloud over the collapse of the health care system itself.” As the focus of the health care systems in West Africa shifts to Ebola, it shifts resources away from other diseases. Ebola has profound effects on not just the health of those individuals who contract the virus, but also those who are unable to receive treatment and vaccines they otherwise would have.
Even as the international community works to stop the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, the effects of the virus will continue. Children will have lost parents, immunity against preventable diseases, and valuable time in school. Adults will continue to struggle to support their families as the fear of Ebola suppresses the economy and increases food prices. While the media may inundate us with death rates and statistics, the full extent of the virus is much larger when considering the people of West Africa who will feel the indirect effects of the outbreak for years to come.