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How is Ebola related to Climate Change and Global Warming?

AUGUST 23, 2014 By Alpha Rashid Jalloh

Health workers in protective clothing wait in an emergency ward as preparation for receiving any emergency Ebola patients. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency
Health workers in protective clothing wait in an emergency ward as preparation for receiving any emergency Ebola patients. Credit: European Pressphoto Agency

The prevalence and spread of “Ebola-like viruses” in the east of Sub-Sahara Africa and their recent incursion into West Africa has been attributed to globalization and environmental degradation or pollution by some western analysts, which sounds strange. What they are now pointing out is that we (Africans) are the cause of our own potential demise. I would not totally subscribe to their views, though they do have some amount of verisimilitude. Even though we may not subscribe to their view, we have to however embrace the fact that humans are the major drivers of emerging diseases or even previously existing diseases like cholera, diarrhea, dysentery and malaria, which are now claimed to be symptoms of the Ebola disease in Sierra Leone and which has compounded the situation and makes it enigmatic. What the people knew in the past was that these were tropical diseases that were curable but now that they are declared to be symptoms of Ebola, it creates a scary situation and many wonder how they would survive when such curable diseases were a common prevalence in Sierra Leone and in the sub region. It seems we are experiencing an evolution of diseases which means we need new scientific evidence and that demands credible scientific research.

But while the Ebola pandemic is taking its toll in Sierra Leone and neighbouring countries, western observers or analysts are proffering different views as to what has been generally believed to be the case. I have been reading several articles on the internet on Ebola and tropical diseases in Africa so as to broaden my view and knowledge on them, and in the course of doing so I observe that those in the West seem to pin their perceptions on one point, that is, Africans are engaged in environmental degradation and pollution by deforesting, eating wild animals and engaged in some activities detrimental to the environment. These activities are what those in the West have been campaigning against over the years and pouring money on NGOs who also convey their views and help to fulfill their objectives. Now the Ebola virus is here. So what do they say? “We said it or warned them but Africans did not listen”.

So far as Western researchers or analysts are concerned, things like agricultural expansion and deforestation and even travel and trade are things that manipulate the environment and allow pathogens to get from animal hosts to people and then travel around the world! It sounds strange but such are the views prevalent based on what I have discovered.  It may have some truth and may not have some truth. But to be frank we need to rethink on the issue of eating animals like monkeys, bats and even baboons which are forbidden by the two dominant religions, Christianity and Islam. But some would argue that if that was the case the communities where hunters of monkeys are in the majority could have been the worst affected. According to a study published in 2012, researchers asked national infectious disease experts in 30 different countries whether or not they thought climate change would affect infectious disease patterns in their countries. The majority agreed. My argument is that if this is so, can we say climate change is responsible for the outbreak of the Ebola pandemic which has never been experienced in this part of the world? We now need scientific evidence linking climate change to epidemic outbreaks. When this is done those engaged in sensitizing and other activities would know how to put messages in a simple way for the average person like Sinna, Sia, Fefegulla, Sebom, Saio or Tunde to understand how his activities affecting the environment could lead to the outbreak of a pandemic. But I still insist that we need scientific evidence establishing equipollence between environmental pollution and degradation and out beak of pandemics like Ebola.

Today, Ebola is causing havoc in West Africa, and has reached a catastrophic level.  This has been attributed to unequivocal environmental changes in recent years. The International Food Policy Research Institute published a report in 2013, finding that in Sierra Leone (the epicenter of the outbreak), climate change has resulted in “seasonal droughts, strong winds, thunderstorms, landslides, heat waves, floods, and changed rainfall patterns.”

According to the World Health Organization, a recent global increase in infectious diseases seems to correspond with rising global temperatures. What I would say for now is that determining whether there is a direct causative relation between climate change and the Ebola outbreak without scientific evidence is a fanciful academic assertion. If we linked it to the eating of bush meat there seems to be a practical truth in such assertion which could be supported by common sense. For some, the eating of bush meat could be attributed to food scarcity or poverty or habit. The Ebola virus is known to spread into human populations through contact with an infected animal. The virus can live for years in animal populations (such as bats and monkeys) without harming them, but it could become dangerous to humans when infected bush meat is eaten.  For many Sierra Leoneans, Liberians or Guineans, monkey and bat meat are believed to be “delicious”. People eat them most times not because of food scarcity but just out of habit.

The Ebola pandemic has however taught a new lesson to monkey and bat-eaters. If you were to read most of the articles written by those in the West or ideas proffered be it expert or personal, the common idealistic meeting point is that poorer populations in Africa, living in resource-strapped areas, are the ones most likely to become stricken with the virus because they are the ones most likely to rely on bush meat to feed their families. This assertion has been corroborated by the 2013 IFPRI report which inter alia states, “Poor communities suffer the most from climate change impacts.” It is from this that some analysts have inferentially asserted that such communities as they become characterized by further inadequacies; they encroach further into the wild in search of food.  To be frank such changes in human behavior will likely impact the natural environment.

With such practical facts we have to accept that more incursion into the forest in search of monkeys and bats or rats (called gronpigs), we might experience more exposure to Ebola or Lassa fever.  In the late 70s and 80s there was a Lassa Fever Project for the South and South East of the country because communities in this region were intermittently ravaged by dreadful Lassa Fever attacks which produce symptoms similar to Ebola save that blood is not emitted, Today, that project is dead and we wonder whether there has been any research as to whether this current Ebola outbreak might not be compounded with Lassa Fever. Somebody revealed to me recently that few months ago it killed a whole family in Kenema. When we were growing up there were periods when vaccination was provided to all communities across the country including schools and public institutions in the fight to prevent Lassa fever attacks, but today we do not know what is happening.

Let us come back to Western analysts and their views about the Ebola pandemic. Take an example of a man like Morse who believes that the only way to make an educated guess at how climate change would impact future Ebola outbreaks is to undertake “nuanced microclimate analyses of the specific African regions that have been affected in the past”. Is he sure that there would be scientific backing in such an approach? I insist again, what we need in this part of the world is scientific evidence for any assertion relating to epidemics. If any research suggests that warming global temperatures makes vector-borne diseases like malaria more prevalent because the vectors that carry such diseases (like mosquitoes) thrive in warmer climates, my reaction is, that has always been the case. Since time immemorial, malaria, cholera and other tropical diseases have been common because we live in warm tropical regions where the conditions are favorable for the vectors. So, if we are talking about climate change, is it responsible for such tropical diseases to prevail when they have been in existence since time in memorial?  The actual fact is that they cannot be divorced from human activity but the dispute is the connectivity between climate change and Ebola outbreak or pandemics like it.

But on the other hand let us look at the facts they proffer some of which are obviously true but could raise some doubts in the practical mind. That in the past few centuries, the temperatures of the oceans have risen significantly, at an average of 0.13 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. And it turns out that cholera thrives in warm water; research has shown that rising sea temperature seem to be connected to rising incidences of cholera. But what has been the accepted medical fact in the past was that cholera was related to hygiene which is most times not adhered to by average homes in Africa. Some of these facts are strange and there needs to be further expounding on them and to back them with further scientific evidence or empirical verifications.  These western analysts assert further that as temperatures rise, the polar ice caps will continue to melt, leading to rising sea levels.

Now let us come to the issue of globalization which is also a strange word to the average man in Sierra Leone but which has an impact on his life. How does it relate to pandemics like Ebola?  The conception now is that Globalization has led to significant change in the demographics in Africa as more and more people are moving out of the rural areas and into the urban areas.  This is true for most African countries especially when governments think only of the urban areas because that is where you have the enlightened people who can sway votes and if you disappoint them in your term of office, they know what to do when voting comes unlike the politically blind rural man. The less considered rural poor have to migrate because of the push and pull factors influencing rural to urban migration.  Western analysts are of the view that it poses serious public health consequences and they predict that it could worsen in coming years.

Stephen Morrison is the Director of the Center for Strategic & International Studies’ Global Health Policy Center.  He says, “As you move towards these megacities and mega populations on coastal areas, you wind up with huge vulnerability to infectious outbreaks because of inadequate sanitation and water,” According to him “…if you have flooding, those coastal environments will be more at risk because of climate change. You’ll be at a higher risk of the kind of infectious outbreaks like cholera.” This is something I need to discuss with our health experts in Sierra Leone. It might be true for some countries but has there been a situation in which flooding has had a link to cholera outbreaks?

But if we think Ebola is the only disease that kills in droves, we are mistaken. There is a serious warning which we are not aware of. Remember WHO warned us in 2013?  A new warning says that both malaria and cholera have had and are expected to continue to have a much bigger impact on public health than Ebola.  The WHO estimates about 110,000 deaths due to cholera every year; malaria killed an estimated 627,000 in 2012 alone.  This indicates that in as much as we are fighting against Ebola we should also prepare to fight malaria and cholera which threatens to kill more people than Ebola. The Ministry of Health in Sierra Leone should not wait till it happens. We need preventive measures now including those for Lassa fever.

In conclusion I quite agree with the western analysts on their views on eating bush meat but do not embrace the fact that environmental pollution could be linked to Ebola or Cholera outbreaks. However, I agree that we should take the WHO warning very seriously and not wait when things crump up and then start looking out for “suspects” as is happening in the case of Ebola.

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