In August Rwandans held their breath as local media reported that a German student with Ebola-like symptoms, who’d flown into the country via Liberia, was being held in the isolation unit at the national referral hospital. I joined the rest of the country in breathing a sigh of relief when the health ministry announced that he was suffering from acute malaria and not the hemorrhagic fever, which has killed 1,552 people as of August 26.
I find this year’s global outbreak of Ebola quite interesting simply because this it is so unexpected. For you see, this is a disease endemic to parts of Africa that were once off the beaten path.
The first case of the disease was diagnosed in 1976 close to the Ebola River, which is found in an extremely isolated and sparely populated part of the DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo). That outbreak killed 280 villagers. The second major outbreak in the DRC occurred in 1995, killing 315. Only in 2000 did Ebola leave it’s heavily forested home and cross over to DRC’s neighbor, Uganda.
So, the question that we must ask ourselves is, what has changed? Why is this disease, which had only killed Congolese forest dwellers previously, suddenly spreading like wildfire across the African continent and even further afield?
If I was to blame one thing, I’d blame Africa’s economic development over the past few decades. For whereas once the isolated nature of the various Ebola hotspots ensured that there were only localized infections and deaths, today we have roads and airstrips leading to and from these very regions.
These transport networks allow not only trade and migration, but also the spreading of diseases to populations that have never encountered them. Think about it, it is only today that a single infection in a Guinean village can morph into an epidemic that is besieging most of West Africa.
Today sub-Saharan African nations are in an infrastructure building frenzy. According to World Bank figures last year, transport networks account for 20 percent of its lending portfolio on the continent. What is especially noteworthy is that the projects are taking a regional and transcontinental aspect.
Here in East Africa, the nations of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya are engaged in a project to connect a standard gauge from the Kenyan port of Mombasa to Rwanda’s capital Kigali. That new railway will then eventually extend to South Sudan and Ethiopia. It would not be shocking to me if, in the next three decades, a railway line connected Dakar in the west to Mombasa in the east.
So while we celebrate the increased economic opportunities that all the new networks will avail us, let us not forget that it comes with a price. I will not be surprised if this epidemic is only the first of very many. It is my fear that very few African states will have the medical infrastructure necessary to ward off the next wave of possible epidemics.