The most recent outbreak of the Ebola haemorrhagic fever has had a most chilling effect. Unlike previous such outbreaks in isolated parts of Africa, where high case fatality rates and relative inaccessibility meant fewer deaths, this one appears to be riding on the back of the globalisation train. From its outbreak in Guinea in March this year, the current epidemic is not just describing a swathe of death that threatens to engulf West Africa, but has led to scares around the world.
In turn, this one outbreak points up our continued vulnerability from our interface with nature, either through global warming as our economic activities produce more greenhouse gases, depleting the earth’s natural flora cover, and through the latter (or through the African’s love for exotic meat types), driving its fauna to extinction. On the other hand, news that the Americans may have an experimental serum that works wonders on victims of Ebola was a reminder, if one was needed, of the resilience of the human species, especially our capacity to find solutions to whatever problems beset us, once we set out minds to it.
Some distance remains before this wonder serum may be found either off the counter, or via some medic’s prescription. There are three stages to drug testing. In the first stage, promising compounds are put through their paces using human cells grown in laboratories, or computer models of the former. Success at this stage sees the would-be medication go through the animal testing stage. Only after this may the drug prospects be tested on healthy human volunteers, and thereafter, ailing persons. The drug certification process then kicks off from this point.
It would seem that the American prospect is barely out of the stage two trials. However, a provision of the American drug testing process that allows use in exceptional circumstances resulted in two US aid workers who caught the disease while working in Liberia being treated with the unapproved substance. Apparently, tests on monkeys revealed that the drug had potential for curing Ebola. If reports on the current state of both these US citizens are anything to go by, the ZMapp drug may have more than potential.
At this point, the discourse breaks down. Why, it is being asked have the Americans not dispatched the drugs to Africa? Not just have they used it, but also the use appears beneficial. So non-use for our benefit could mean any of several things. If nothing else, conspiracy theorists have fervid imaginations.
More useful context, though, may be obtained from understanding why the Americans began the research into an Ebola cure in the first place. Their concern was not with dying Africans, good for television, though, such sights have turned out to be for the continent’s brain-dead leadership. Since 1976, if not before then, Africa has had the virus. Outbreaks were messy, true, but quickly ran their courses. African governments did not appear bothered either. No continental panjandrum, not any of his (they are usually male, these types) apparatchik was ever threatened by the disease.
The Americans were worried instead, about the danger to their citizens, were bioterrorists able to produce cultures based on this and other highly fatal diseases; and thought it proper to attack the US with them. And they commissioned researchers to work on counter-cultures. It was plain chance, therefore, that one such response was ready in time for this outbreak. The Americans, thus, got a unique opportunity to put their risk mitigation procedures to test.
What has Africa been doing? Liberia and Sierra Leone have shut their borders, requesting their nationals to fast and pray. Nigeria is not praying yet, at least not around Ebola. Still certain that it has in place the processes necessary to contain an outbreak of the virus, locally. Although, truth is that much of the domestic prayer assets may be currently deployed in aid of the return of the kidnapped Chibok girls. Which may explain government’s prohibition of the leading Pentecostal miracle-working pastor from taking on new imports — we may need him later!
In essence, then, we are witnessing two responses to the same stimulus. One rational. The other, difficult to place. This has been the African dilemma since 1955: an unwillingness to take responsibility for the choices we make, married with the conviction that if we scream ourselves hoarse thereafter, we can get others to pull our chestnuts out of the fire for us.