This outbreak, which has caused so many deaths in the West African countries of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, has gradually spread to other places both in Africa, Europe and North America. Some of these countries in West Africa are very poor, highly populated and without adequate healthcare services. Lack of education, environmental sanitation, clean water supply and proper social services contribute to the fast spread of communicable diseases whenever there is an epidemic.
At this time, most people have learned that the Ebola virus is spread through contact with body fluids of an infected person and that the signs and symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, high fever, body aches, cough, abdominal pains and loss of appetite. The incubation period of Ebola is 21 days, meaning that one may not know they have this virus for up to three weeks.
As human beings, we most times wish, hope and pray that a problem like this will never come our way. But wishing away or minimizing this kind of threat is very dangerous. Global travel is extensive today as airplanes, trains, ships and buses carry people to and from far away destinations. A one-time contact between two people on an airplane can, for example, quickly translate into a situation where hundreds of people in many locations can be exposed to a communicable agent. One has no way of knowing where the wind could blow, so to speak.
In this light, the Ebola virus outbreak calls us to exercise extreme caution and we all have a role in the fight against this very contagious and fatal disease. No one is immune to being affected and it is never one person’s problem but a public/community problem.
Things we can do as individuals include washing our hands as many times as possible, especially after using the restroom or being in public places where we might shake hands or have other incidental contact with someone; remembering to cover our mouth with the inner elbow or handkerchiefs when we cough or sneeze (do not cover your mouth with the palm when you sneeze or cough); and wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating them.
We are in a time when paying attention to our body’s vital signs is very important. Individuals should promptly report any unusual body temperature changes, frequent passing (greater than twice per day) of watery or bloody stool, nausea and vomiting.
As a community, we can fight the spread of communicable disease by encouraging and promoting cleanliness in our homes and most especially in public places. People should develop and maintain an attitude of “health consciousness” to safeguard themselves and others. In the case of the Ebola virus Benjamin Franklin’s old adage “an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure,” surely applies.
As people of faith, we receive this situation as a time to be our brother’s and our sister’s keeper. It is not a time to apportion blame or discriminate against anyone whose appearance suggests that they are from or have been to those West African countries where the outbreak started. The people in those countries remain in grave danger. The young and old, the rich and poor are all equally at risk unless something is done to help them. Those healthcare workers who are courageously and compassionately attending to them should be commended. We must pray to God that all who are potentially in the path of this terrible virus are protected from harm and given to healing. The government and non-government agencies that are sending out funds, protective garbs and sponsoring healthcare workers to these places should be applauded.
So let us approach this situation with great caution and diligence in those areas of prevention that we can control, and also with compassion and prayer for all those, far or near, who fall ill.
Sr. Chilee Okoko is Director of the Ministry of Life, Dignity and Justice for the Diocese of San Bernardino and a licensed physician in California.