Will an Ebola vaccine change anything?

Developing an Ebola vaccine still will need the determination to get it to the people in need.

By Devin Curda

“Yeah-o, Ebola can come from Guinea every two years…it will soon pass”

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Northern Liberia, these were the words of my neighbor back in March when the first cases of Ebola began gaining traction in the tri-country border region of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. This naive response forebode the outbreak of Ebola currently spreading across West Africa, as the number of confirmable cases has now reached 6,000 with projections for the pandemic reaching to a million cases by January.

The international response to this crisis has been twofold: direct assistance to the affected countries and a rapid push for vaccine development. We could debate the efficacy of the millions of dollars currently pouring into the regional NGO’s and governments, but I would rather focus on the latter response, the costly quest for a vaccine. In early September the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services signed a 43 million dollar contract with a biopharmaceutical company to develop an Ebola drug. According to the World Health Organization, a safe and effective vaccine will not be available until at least 2015, despite the expedited clinical trial process.

But discovering a vaccine and distributing a vaccine are two entirely different public health concerns. If all of the millions of dollars being poured in by the government and non-profits amount to a successful scientific solution, what next? Who will pay for its dissemination? Who will convince the people of West Africa that this is a life-saving drug? Who will build the trust required to safely inject millions of adults and children?

During my time as a teacher in Liberia I met people who had never seen a white, Asian, or Hispanic person. For some, shaking my hand came with trepidation as they were unsure of what I was doing in their village. How can we expect health workers to do the same and successfully treat patients who will balk at the unexpected presence of a foreigner?

We already have examples of preventable and treatable conditions that still run rampant: HIV, TB, and Malaria. In fact, according to “The Global Fund,” a $4 billion organization aimed specifically at combating these diseases, there are almost six million deaths annually from the three.

Maintaining and increasing our “boots on the ground” commitment is the only real way to effectively end this disaster. I applaud President Obama’s commitment of U.S. troops to Liberia as well as the UN Security Council’s resolution calling for a comprehensive response to this “threat to international peace and security.”

I fear that as soon as a vaccination is created, Ebola will be relegated to the moribund trifecta of HIV, TB, and Malaria. It will become yet another “cause” to advocate for, to fight for, but to ultimately be forgotten amidst the miasma of global health problems.

We still have chance to end this now, while the world is collectively united on tackling Ebola. We can prevent Ebola from becoming an issue that defines this decade. And we can hope that with continual cooperation and engagement, Ebola will soon be referred to in the same breath as smallpox: a scourge of the past.

Devin Curda was a Peace Corps volunteer who worked as a high school math teacher in Liberia from June 2013 to August 2014. He lives in Bellevue.