Health Expert Appeals for Calm Over Ebola, Warns More Diseases Likely
The Hague, 22 November 2014 – Managing the public panic caused by diseases like ebola or avian influenza can be as important as managing the outbreaks themselves, a top international health advisor warned parliamentarians from NATO nations on Saturday.
Henk Jan Ormel, from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, said public fear of ebola, the latest outbreak of which has killed almost 5,500 people mostly in West Africa, far outweighs concern about other more deadly diseases, such as rabies which has killed 65,000 people in the last year, or emerging dangers like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).
“When there is an outbreak, or the threat of one, you have to start to educate yourself,” Ormel, FAO Senior Veterinary Policy Advisor, told the NATO Parliamentary Assembly at its Annual Session in the Netherlands. “You have to explain to people what is happening,” Ormel urged the politicians at the assembly’s Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security.
“I think there is an enormous risk of MERS becoming the ebola of 2015. I hope I’m wrong,” he said, adding that developed nations have become good at treating ebola but bad at treating the public reaction to it.
MERS is a disease in camels and when passed to humans spreads quickly between them through the air, while ebola, which originated in bats, requires physical contact to move. Flu-like in nature, MERS has killed more than 190 people since it surfaced in Saudi Arabia two years ago.
Ormel said animal health is the weakest link in the global health security chain, citing the ongoing H5N8 bird flu outbreaks in poultry in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which experts say appear related to outbreaks in South Korea and Japan, and could be spread by migrating birds.
With added pressures from a growing global population, climate change, urbanization and uneven economic growth, animal diseases are only likely to increase, with dire economic consequences.
Canadian Senator Jane Cordy noted that it’s difficult to limit public panic over ebola, even though the outbreaks are centred in western Africa. “People are very much afraid, but despite the fact that as a politician you can talk very calmly and practically about it, it doesn’t necessarily work because people just don’t want this disease in their country,” she said.
On combatting diseases themselves, Ormel told the parliamentarians, who are meeting in The Hague until Monday, that military support is vital because armies are good at organising when an outbreak throws people into disarray.