A lesson for America from the Ebola crisis

The deadly Ebola virus that has spread across West Africa -- killing about half of those infected -- poses a significant public health threat for some of the world’s most impoverished people. And although some courageous front-line health care workers have returned to the U.S. for treatment, there’s little chance the disease will come to America.

Transmission of the virus only occurs during the exchange of bodily fluids – such as blood, sweat or saliva – and requires close contact with infected people. It spreads quickly in places like Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria because those countries lack the kind of public health infrastructure that exists in the U.S.

But although Americans have no cause for immediate concern, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa provides us with a cautionary tale.

Writing in a journal covering tropical diseases, researchers explain that outbreaks “occur in areas in which the economy and public health system have been decimated from years of civil conflict or failed development.” Poor economies drive people into the forests to survive, where they become infected, and then spread the virus from villages to cities due to inadequate public health systems.

These countries emerged from the colonial era poor, and most have stayed that way. They have not developed good medical systems or properly educated people. In part, this is because their leaders diverted limited resources into fighting wars and civil conflict, and corruption. They were buying guns when they should have been building hospitals.

They were recruiting young people into their military when they should have been training doctors and other health care workers. They were surrounding themselves with luxuries, when they should have been educating people how to avoid infection.

The lesson from this crisis is that when a nation commits too many resources to wars and military might – the wrong things -- and ignores critical social services, education and infrastructure – the right things -- the result is usually catastrophic. That’s a lesson every country, including our own, should heed.