With 887 dead so far and about 1,200 suspected cases as reported by the World Health Organization, the outbreak of the Ebola virus currently tearing through several African countries is now being considered the deadliest in history. Ever since its first appearance in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the virus, while lethal with a mortality rate of 90 percent, has had mostly isolated, sporadic outbreaks. The biggest previous incident recorded 224 deaths, and in its 38-year history the virus has chalked up a total of 2,300 casualties.
Which makes the current outbreak the biggest and fastest in terms of spread and fatality rate. Where previously it struck in remote areas of Sudan, Zaire, Uganda and Congo, the hotspots this time are Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Nigeria has also confirmed its second case of Ebola, following reports that an American traveler boarded a flight in Liberia to the Nigerian capital of Lagos and died soon after. The 40-year-old US citizen was said to have attended the funeral of his sister, who also died from Ebola, before he himself expired after experiencing severe vomiting and diarrhea across two flights. Now Nigerian health officials are racing against time to track down some 30,000 people who might have come in contact with the man in the plane or in the airport.
And because Nigeria is Africa’s most populous nation, the appearance of the virus there dramatically raises the stakes. Its international gateway, the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, is among the busiest in the continent, serving more than 7.1 million passengers in 2012. And as Richard Preston—author of “The Hot Zone,” the best-selling 1994 nonfiction book on the Ebola virus—gravely noted, “a hot virus from the rain forest lives within a twenty-four-hour plane flight from every city on earth. All of the earth’s cities are connected by a web of airline routes. The web is a network. Once a virus hits the net, it can shoot anywhere in a day—Paris, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, whenever planes fly…”
Manila, too—or Cebu, or Davao, our hubs for international departures and arrivals. While many of us would imagine Africa and its exotic diseases as too remote and removed from our existence, the possibility of such outbreaks eventually reaching our shores is very real, given our interconnectedness with the global airline network. More than that, we actually have overseas Filipino workers even in such distant places as West Africa.
When a travel ban was imposed last July 4 following news of the latest Ebola outbreak, the Department of Foreign Affairs said some 3,491 Filipinos are working in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Seven OFWs who arrived a couple of days ago from Sierra Leone tested negative of the virus; they were part of a construction company that, responsibly, immediately sent its foreign employees home to protect them from the risk of contracting the disease.
Sufferers typically exhibit flu-like symptoms at the start, but the hemorrhagic fever eventually unravels into something more horrifying, with intense vomiting, diarrhea, and internal and external bleeding. The last phase is described by Reston in horror-movie terms: “The human virus bomb explodes”—what military biohazard experts describe as the victim having “crashed and bled out.”
The only mitigating factor is that the virus is not passed by air, but only through very close contact with an infected person. “I wouldn’t be worried to sit next to someone with Ebola virus on the Tube as long as they don’t vomit on you or something,” said Peter Piot, the Belgian scientist who codiscovered the Ebola virus. “This is an infection that requires very close contact.”
Doctors and nurses from the Bureau of Quarantine and International Health Surveillance are now reportedly monitoring passengers of connecting flights from West African countries. The Philippine Overseas Employment Administration has also said it is trying to reach OFWs in affected areas through their recruitment agencies to warn them to hew to security precautions.
It’s important to be vigilant. The government must be ready to fly out OFWs from badly-hit areas without a moment’s delay should it prove necessary, and treat returning Filipinos exhibiting symptoms of the disease with dispatch—but without generating public panic or allowing stigma and discrimination to befall them and their families. The government cannot afford to be matter-of-fact or careless; the outbreak must not reach Philippine shores.
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