Monday, September 22, 2014


This week it was announced that deaths due to Ebola has hit the 2,400 mark. President Barack Obama labelled the crisis a “global security threat” and committed funds and manpower to battle the latest outbreak.

It would not be lost on many that it has taken more than six months for the leader of the free world to acknowledge the danger.

The conspiracy theorists have been having a field day. They find it strange that a disease whose previous outbreaks have been characterised by jungle or rural set ups, in west Africa reared its ugly head in the urban settings.

They also wonder at the speed at which it has spread across borders. And finally that there were doses of a trial anti-Ebola drug available conveniently to heal two US doctors and UK paramedic.

It’s possible that these theories would not stand up to much scrutiny and that they have got innocent and logical reasons to explain them away.

But what is not under contest is that no drug has been created to battle the deadly virus, which was first isolated almost 40 years ago in 1976.

"The reason this is, is a reflection of the low profitability associated with such a drug by the big pharmaceuticals, the relatively few deaths attributed to it and the lack of capacity to develop a drug by the populations most likely to suffer Ebola attacks – namely poor African countries...

The five biggest health killers in the western world are heart disease, respiratory diseases, stroke, cancer and liver disease. In Africa on the other hand it is Tuberclosis, AIDS, Malaria and water borne diseases.

The pharmaceutical industry is driven by private capital. This means that for them to research and develop a drug a business case has to be made. So you find most of the research is driven towards western ailments and less towards diseases that affect the world’ poor.

The US National Cancer Institute reports that $4.9b has been spent per year for the last six years on cancer research, while it is estimated that to get at least 500,000 doses of an Ebola vaccine within the next nine months can cost $25m.

In addition over four decades it is estimated that only about 4000 people have died from the hemorrhagic fever, a number that does not help in making a case for a possible vaccine’s viability.
The bottom line is that for the big pharmaceutical companies who have the resources – financial and human to research and develop drugs for Ebola or any other diseases that affect us, it does not make financial sense to get involved.

Which brings us full circle to our own responsibility as Africans.  Ebola and several other diseases are our diseases, by virtue of our climate and proximity to nature. They are our problem. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that as a continent we need to invest more into research and development for these diseases that are uniquely ours...

In fact state subsidies of research – medical or agriculture would be money well spent. And it is not for lack of money that we do not get involved in such worthwhile endeavour, but for a lack of leadership on the continent to identify our problems and come up with solutions to them. We have the finances and we can develop the man power to push such a project.

The African has shown himself to be resilient to conquest, disease and poverty but that resilience should not be taken for granted. We need to start thinking strategically if we as a continent are to rise to our full potential. Medical research is as good a p lace as any to start.

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