I am watching the recent outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo with a mix of dread and hope. The dread is driven by concern we could see a worst-case scenario like that of four years ago, when more than 11,000 people died from Ebola in West Africa. The hope springs from the fact that we know how to stop such an outbreak, and it appears public health officials in the DRC are taking timely steps to apply that knowledge.
“We’re on the epidemiological knife edge of this response,” said Peter Salama, the World Health Organization’s deputy Director-General for Emergency Preparedness and Response, as reported in the digital newsletter Global Health Now. “The next few weeks will really tell if the outbreak will expand to urban areas, or if we will be able to keep it under control.”
So far, 27 people have died. That is tragic. But if those currently responding do what is proven to work — surveillance and reporting, rapid diagnostics, contact tracing, health worker safety, easy access to treatment, public education and messaging — the death toll will ebb, and we will have avoided a widespread epidemic.
This highlights a truth about most public health action: We know how to combat disease, stop outbreaks and improve health, we just need to take the actions we know will be effective.
But taking the right action is not always a simple task. Effective public health work requires preparation, allocation of resources and, perhaps most importantly, political and personal will. If we are honest, we know from our own lives how difficult this can be. For most of us, we know that to stay healthy we should eat right, exercise moderately, sleep well and build strong relationships. Those are the basics proven to make a difference. They are also the keys to prevent and mitigate some of the biggest health burdens the world faces, such as diabetes and hypertension.
We know these things, but don’t always act on them.
A colleague of mine keeps a bowl of chocolate candies in her office. I know I should stay away, but I don’t. My employer provides health insurance that covers regular check-ups. I should do them, but I don’t always. The bedside alarm rings early to prompt me to get up for my morning run. I should get up and, in this case, I actually do. (Hey, one out of three is not bad!)
Most public health efforts are the same. The right actions taken over a long time make a huge difference. That’s true, too, in preparing for future epidemics. That’s why Americares works every day to invest in the safety of health workers, improved supply chains and stronger local health centers. We know these strategies work.
On a personal level and collectively, too, let’s take the actions known to make a difference in our own health, the health of our communities and the world. Yes, there is always an innovation, new approach or technology (in the case of this Ebola outbreak, a new vaccine) that can improve our response. We need them all. But we also need the will to do the basic actions that have proven to make a difference. We will hopefully see the results of such good practice in the DRC in the coming weeks.
“Take the right steps.” That’s my new personal health — and public health — motto.