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Ebola outbreak in France: Not if, but when?

(Published in The Malay Mail 13 October)

France could soon be facing its own homegrown Ebola cases as has happened in America and Spain, unless it is very lucky.

Projections made by scientists at MobsLab in Boston predict a 25 to 75 percent chance of France suffering an “importation of Ebola Virus Disease cases” by the end of this month. This places France third in a list of 30 countries most at risk of having the virus imported onto their turf within this timescale —you’ll be pleased to know Malaysia is not on this E-list.

Given the media coverage, I am sure you’re familiar with the deadly nature of this virus that took hold in Guinea back in March. “Deadly” being an apt description given its fatality rate averages 50 percent, there’s no vaccine for this highly contagious virus and its incubation period of up to 21-days allows for ample transfer opportunities. It’s killed close to 4000 thousand in West Africa — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea —and cases have also been confirmed in Nigeria, Senegal, Germany, Norway, UK, US and Spain (the first country in which the virus was contracted outside West Africa).

MobsLab’s predictions are calculated and updated frequently using World Health Organisation WHO case data and projected airline traffic, the latter being dependent on the extent of travel by individuals to and from France in the forthcoming weeks. Clearly, the more travel the more risk. And, there will be plenty given the forthcoming Toussaint school vacation that runs from 18 October to 2 November. Several affected African countries are also French-speaking with busy airline routes to France, potentially making matters worse. As I write, there are reports circulating of a French woman who was hospitalized on the 10 October with Ebola-like symptoms following a trip to Liberia.

Earlier last week the French Health Minister Marisol Touraine reassured the nation saying that while “le risque zéro n’existe pas” (there’s no such thing as zero-risk), they have: “Identified hospitals ready to receive patients and keep them in isolated and secure wards, to ensure that the disease does not spread.”

There’s been one confirmed Ebola case so far, that of a French nurse working in Liberia with Médecins Sans Frontières (a volunteer organization founded in France) who returned to France after being infected with the Ebola virus. She has since recovered.

France is exercising vigilance. It has a first class medical system and I imagine the safety protocols Madame Touraine alluded to are of the highest standards. But is this enough? Is France really ready?

When I called my family doctor last Wednesday to see what he had to say about the Ebola threat his reply was: “I’m not geared up for Ebola, I haven’t received any handouts or directives from the government. What I know is what is in the news, I know nothing more.”

Equally, I’ve received no advice from the two schools our children attend. Not many parents I know are worried about an Ebola threat; it’s an African problem.

What should France be doing? Air France has cancelled flights to the worst affected areas, but it is still running some primarily to whisk in aid workers and supplies. The WHO hasn’t placed any restrictions on travel, but it is temperature-screening travellers leaving West Africa — fever being an early symptom of Ebola. The US and the UK implemented screening over the weekend. France doesn’t plan to, yet; the effectiveness of this screening is questionable in any event given the virus’ long incubation period.

I guess it’s a question of balancing the need to continue normal life with the need to take appropriate preventive steps to combat an Ebola epidemic. Finding that balance is hard, but instilling panic and fear, as has happened in the US following the recent death of Ebola victim Thomas Duncan, 42, in Dallas, should be avoided. The French government have been commendably careful on this front so far.


People hold candles during a prayer vigil and memorial at Wilshire Baptist Church for Thomas Eric Duncan after he passed away from the Ebola virus on October 8, 2014 in Dallas, Texas. — AFP pic -

The reality in Dallas, according to my close friend, is that: “As usual, the media here is turning the Ebola virus into priority news No. 1 and over dramatizing the whole issue.” She added: “More Americans will die of influenza this year, than Ebola.” And being perfectly frank, she mentioned that her colleagues and friends were more concerned about the Texas and Oklahoma College Football game taking place on Saturday.

My levelheaded side nods in agreement. Yet, hearing Dr. Kim Yong Jim the World Bank President admit recently that the international community had “failed miserably” in its response to the Ebola virus, and saying it was going “to get much worse”, didn’t exactly inspire confidence. It made me wonder how France will fare.

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