Is there a silver lining to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa which has claimed nearly 10,000 lives over the past year?

Yes, says A. Townsend Peterson, of the University of Kansas, in the journal PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases. Finally, he argues, Ebola will get the funding needed to develop effective vaccines and treatments.

Ebola is only one of a number of diseases which cripple developing countries, but which are largely ignored in the developed world because no one there is in danger.

In fact, the statutory mission of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is “to protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the US”. And the mission of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) is “to develop, maintain, and renew scientific human and physical resources that will ensure the Nation’s capability to prevent disease.”

This is understandable; charity begins at home. But in a globalised world, a narrow focus on national welfare may be old-fashioned. In 48 hours, travellers can move from the remotest parts of the world to London, Moscow, Paris, Tokyo or New York. Diseases like Ebola do not stop at border controls to present their passports. 

As soon as governments in the developed world saw that Ebola was spreading from West Africa, the funding tap was opened.

One example of this dynamic is the West Nile virus, which has become endemic in the US. Between 1942 and 1998, 278 articles dealt with it in scholarly journals. After it arrived in 1999, the number of publications averaged 420 a year. Scientific interest in Ebola is following a similar pattern.

If the present situation with Ebola [writes Peterson] is to offer any lessons, they are that the only hope for serious investment in reducing the incidence and impact of such diseases is via spread to developed countries. Once such spread occurs, research and pharmaceutical investment will most likely follow. Ebola is a positive example, and clearly Ebola research will enter a new phase of progress, innovation, funding, production of key pharmaceuticals, and improved care, hopefully for all who might be infected by this virus.

In effect, what Ebola did was to cross the line between being a “neglected tropical disease” and being an “emerging infection.” The former set of diseases collectively exert an enormous burden in the developing world that may be constant or episodic, but are rather ubiquitous in those regions, affecting the affluent only when they venture into those regions. The latter, on the other hand, are much less predictable, but garner more immediate attention on the world scene, precisely because they may affect affluent countries. How many other neglected diseases must await this process of spread to affluent regions and infection of affluent people, making the transition from neglected tropical disease to emerging infection, before they also will see investment and innovation?

Perhaps this is part of the good news about globalization: rich countries will realize that no man is an island and begin to make cures for Chagas disease, human African trypanosomiasis, the leishmaniases, echinococcosis, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, schistosomiasis, Buruli ulcer, Lujo virus and many other neglected diseases a far higher priority.  

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet. He lives in Sydney, Australia.