Like an unstoppable forest fire, this Ebola outbreak has been burning through West Africa for weeks. So far, nearly 2,000 cases have been recorded, and the death toll has surpassed 1,000. In total, that's about three times the people affected by the sum of every other Ebola outbreak in history.
But beyond the spread of the deadly virus, other factors are making this outbreak much worse than anyone could have imagined. Here are five reasons why:
1) Other diseases are on the rise
Before the Ebola outbreak, the three countries most affected had very weak health systems and little money to spend on health care. As Vox reported, less than $100 is invested per person per year on health in most of West Africa and these countries record some of the worst maternal and child mortality rates on the planet.
Ebola is depleting those already scarce supplies. Hospitals and clinics have been shut down since the outbreak, so people don't have access to the usual maternity or malaria care they need. The effect of Ebola on health will spread much further than the virus itself. In an interview with the Independent, Dr. Jimmy Whitworth — the head of population health at the UK health foundation Wellcome Trust — said:
"With Ebola, the whole general health system is collapsing. People aren't going to hospitals or clinics because they're frightened, there aren't any medical staff or nursing staff available. Some hospitals have been entirely taken over by Ebola patients, which means other people not getting a look-in."
He and others have projected that, at the very least, more people will die from malaria this year as a result.
2) People are going hungry
The United Nation's World Food Programme declared Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone a level three food emergency — its most urgent warning. They and other aid agencies are trying to get food staples into quarantined areas that have been shut down to stop the spread of Ebola.
According to this Reuters report, doing so has been difficult and the result is food shortages and price inflation: "Hunger is spreading fast as farmers die leaving crops rotting in fields. Truckers scared of the highly infectious disease halt deliveries. Shops close and major airlines have shut down routes, isolating large swathes of the countries."
3) Fear is crippling already fragile economies
People fear doctors and nurses will give them the virus. Doctors and nurses fear that they will get sick and have walked off the job. The outbreak worsens, and that fear has scaled up to the nation level. Countries, including the US, are telling their foreign workers to leave West Africa. Despite the fact that the World Health Organization has advised against doing so, many airlines have halted flights in the region.
As a result, the tourism industry in these places is taking a blow and goods can't flow freely. Besides flight bans, quarantine zones and closures at the borders of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are crippling local businesses. According to the Economist, the World Bank has already cut its economic-growth estimate for Guinea by one percentage point, and the Liberian finance minister said the IMF's estimated 5.9 percent growth in his country is not going to become a reality this year. So even bigger than the already outsized death toll might be an economic one.
4) The outbreak is a lot bigger than current estimates suggest
On August 13, the United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said the outbreak in West Africa is now touching the lives of more than 1 million people in and around the borders of the three countries most impacted by the disease.
In an announcement the next day, the WHO said in a statement, "Staff at the outbreak sites see evidence that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak." This means the world's worst Ebola outbreak in history is even more deadly than we thought.
5) Misinformation is spreading faster than the disease
There's no proven treatment for Ebola but rumors about supposed cures are spreading fast. One persistent myth is that hot water and salt can stop Ebola. Others suggest faith healing or hot chocolate, coffee and raw onions will stamp out the virus. Homeopathy has also emerged as a supposed Ebola crusher.
In the US, the the FDA has warned consumers to watch out for Ebola quackery. Other public health officials are getting creative to debunk the lies. In Africa, the electro-beat song 'Ebola in Town' was created to set the record straight about how to avoid the illness. "Ebola, Ebola in town. Don't touch your friend! No kissing, no eating something. It's dangerous!"
In Lagos, Nigeria, the local government hired a "rumor manager" to help wage a war on the misinformation that is swirling about. "The rumors themselves can actually cause a lot of damage," Lagos state Commissioner for Health Jide Idris recently told reporters. And he has reason to be worried. If this disease starts to take off in Lagos — Africa's largest city, population 22 million — some say this could "instantly transform this situation into a worldwide crisis."