Lessons From the Ebola Epidemic

Ebola has scarred our minds with frightening images of death, destruction and dire challenges for the countries that have been affected. While the disease effects may be dissipating, with reported cases dwindling into the single digits, the repercussions on the healthcare system are crippling and will persist for a long time to come, as highlighted by the CNN piece, “Here’s where we are 1 year later.”

Yet a more highly prevalent disease burden with established predictions for alarming impacts on healthcare, lacks coverage or attention of any comparable level. Noncommunicable diseases like diabetes, cancer, heart disease and mental illness, have been well-documented by the WHO and other bodies as the leading cause of death in the world, with the number of deaths due to disease nearing 40 million compared to the estimated 11,000 lives lost, reported by the CDC, due to Ebola. The numbers speak for themselves.

Sadly, a preponderance of noncommunicable disease-related deaths (80%) occur primarily in Low- and Middle-Income Countries which currently lack both the infrastructure, or tools to address much of this burden, as was evident by the rapid spread of disease with the Ebola epidemic, barriers to which were hampered by this lack of infrastructure. Additionally, the projected disproportion in expected noncommunicable disease deaths among younger residents of low- and middle-income countries present a major threat to their economic stability, as enforced by the international non-profit, NCD Synergies Network and other active organizations for the cause.

One thing the Ebola outbreak should have taught us is the danger of delaying action early when facing a health threat. In the care of noncommunicable diseases, early detection and associated prevention is critical, such as management of blood pressure to avoid the need for dialysis due to avoidable kidney complications, and reducing the risk of strokes which cause chronic disability that severely impede productivity and lifestyle. Additionally, screening is necessary for the detection of some cancers as has been highlighted by recent discussions of the breast cancer guideline changes by the American Cancer Society. Of note, these downstream complications that result from the lack of attention to noncommunicable diseases early on are considerably more expensive than the efforts that go into providing care to prevent them.

What is needed now is an international wakeup call about the urgent global threat, along with the prompt creation of international programs in education and research that can help build structures for addressing this burden of disease. Governments and the global private sector need to prioritize the problem, considering the scope of the worrying downstream economic effects of this burden of disease on already crippled healthcare systems. They must act quickly and purposefully to find solutions to what promises to be an even greater devastating state of public health and health systems than we have seen with any other spectrum of disease, including Ebola.