Skip to navigationSkip to content

The response to West Africa’s Ebola outbreak may end up doing a lot of good

Health workers take blood samples for Ebola virus testing at a screening tent in the local government hospital in Kenema, Sierra Leone, June 30, 2014. The Ebola outbreak has killed 467 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since February, making it the largest and deadliest ever, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). West African states lack the resources to battle the world's worst outbreak of Ebola and deep cultural suspicions about the disease remain a big obstacle to halting its spread, ministers said on Wednesday. Picture taken June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tommy Trenchard
Reuters/Tommy Trenchard
Additional doctors and better healthcare infrastructure will help with more than just Ebola.
By Gwynn Guilford
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Ebola just killed its thousandth victim in West Africa. The US Centers for Disease Control and Protection has put its operations at the highest alert level, and the World Health Organization has labeled the disease an international public health emergency. The World Bank and the WHO have ponied up $200 million to fight the virus and the WHO has also endorsed the use of experimental drugs to combat Ebola, so desperate have times become.

But let’s put this epidemic, the deadliest in the nearly 40-year history of Ebola, in perspective. Here’s a chart based on data by Dalberg, a global development consulting company:

​Based on WHO Ebola data and average annual mortality rates from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

For many in the affected countries, Ebola is among the least of their health worries. In the eight months from when the so-called patient zero was first infected to Aug. 5, 2014, malaria has killed nearly 30 times as many people in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Each week, everyday diarrheal disease claims more lives than Ebola has in eight months.

These deaths from treatable diseases point to a deeper underlying problem, says Dr. Manpreet Singh, who works in Dalberg’s Nairobi office.

“Health systems in West Africa are severely overstretched under normal conditions, let alone during a major outbreak like this,” says Singh. “To put this into perspective: Massachusetts General Hospital has over 2,000 physicians, whereas at the most recent count, Liberia had only 261 doctors providing health care for the whole country.”

It’s not that these countries have been stinting on healthcare spending—or at least not Sierra Leone and Liberia, when measured as a percentage of gross domestic product.

​Though Sierra Leone and Liberia are evidently investing like crazy in healthcare infrastructure, those countries’ long, bloody wars mean that both are starting from an exceptionally low base. While Liberia’s per capita spending is $88, Sierra Leone’s is $171. Guinea, meanwhile, spends just $67, according to Kaiser Health, and healthcare spending there is about 6% of GDP.

In other words, they can use all the help they can get to keep their people healthy. And that $200 million from the World Bank and WHO is a big boost for efforts to prevent more common—and therefore more lethal—illnesses, such as malaria, says Dalberg’s Singh.

“[T]he investments needed to control Ebola include training new doctors and nurses, ensuring that medical supplies get to where they’re needed, and improving diagnostic facilities,” says Dalberg’s Singh. “Building these basics is essential not only to reduce the impact of future potential outbreaks, but also to prevent and treat more common causes of death for years to come.”

📬 Kick off each morning with coffee and the Daily Brief (BYO coffee).

By providing your email, you agree to the Quartz Privacy Policy.