Ebola still barely rates among the continent’s big killers. Far
more deaths are attributable every day in west Africa to malaria,
diarrhoea and HIV/AIDS. But the spread of infections means that death
rates are rising fast: from four a day in August to 13 now. There are no
licensed treatments or vaccines (although scientists are working all
out to rectify that). The assumption that an Ebola outbreak could always
be managed—the disease is hard to catch and people are only contagious
when they are showing symptoms—is under strain.
The inadequacies of the health-care systems in the three
most-affected countries help to explain how the Ebola outbreak got this
far. Spain, whose first locally transmitted case was confirmed on
October 6th, spends over $3,000 per person at purchasing-power parity on
health care; for Sierra Leone, the figure is just under $300. The World
Health Organisation estimates that Liberia needs just under 3,000
treatment beds for Ebola; its current capacity is 620. The United
States, which suffered its first Ebola fatality this week, has 245
doctors per 100,000 people; Guinea has one. The particular vulnerability
of health-care workers to Ebola is therefore doubly tragic: as of
October 5th there had been 390 cases among medical staff in the three
west African countries, and 227 deaths.
Ebola is not just a medical emergency, but an economic one.
Sick people cannot work; fear of sickness keeps others from coming to
work. Transportation and travel is disrupted. An impact assessment by
the World Bank, released on October 8th, estimated the short-term impact
of the outbreak on the economies of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone in
terms of forgone GDP at $359m. Depending on whether the outbreak is
contained quickly or slowly, the damage will continue into next year;
under the Bank’s gloomier “High Ebola” scenario, the economic loss to
Liberia in 2015 would be the equivalent of 12% of GDP.