Journal of Contingencies and Crisis Management

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Volume 4 Issue 1 (March 1996), Pages 1-53

Ebola Virus: From Medical Emergency to Complex Disaster? (pages 10-19)

Ebola haemorrhagic fever is a fatal disease caused by a new virus which has no known cure. Few outbreaks have been documented. Two major epidemics occurred in Africa in 1976. When a new epidemic was detected in Zaire in the spring of 1995, it was widely perceived as a threat to the West. Public attention was intense. A massive intervention, led by UN and US agencies, followed and put an end to the epidemic within less than two months.

The intervention was successful for several reasons. Effective cooperation benefitted from the network which had been initiated by virologists since the 1976 outbreak, NGO activism and international pressure. Cultural under‐currents had prepared the West for the outbreak. The prestige and competency of the international responders – particularly the UN World Health Organization and the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention – helped to keep the emergency a simple one; amenable to a disciplined public‐health approach. Initiatives of the Zairian authorities that might have transformed it into a complex disaster were effectively amended.

A future outbreak may be harder to cope with. Unless resources are better balanced between scientific work on new viruses and grassroots organizations that play a crucial part in handling most epidemics, the current progress may be short‐lived. The next Ebola outbreak in Zaire might find the country in political turmoil. Access for public health responders may be severely limited and compounded by security and human rights issues. A complex emergency could, then, form easily.

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