When an epidemic steals thousands of lives, including those of health workers trying to stop it from spreading, it creates fear and panic in ways that are almost unimaginable.
Ebola is doing exactly that in four of five West African nations where it has killed more than 2,400 people over the past five months, including a doctor in Sierra Leone who was at the forefront of combating the notoriously virulent disease, and had saved more than 100 lives.
Rarely has a health crisis prompted a powerful country to consider the deployment of troops to tackle the problem. But days after Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf appealed to her U.S. counterpart, Barack Obama, for help to check the spread of Ebola, the U.S. is preparing to assign 3,000 military personnel to the afflicted region. They will help supply medical and logistical support for the five countries — Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Nigeria, and Senegal (which, mercifully, has not reported any deaths).
Though it has been around since 1976, occasionally striking Africa, Ebola, named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo where it was first detected, has no cure or vaccine.
Its deadly and relentless rampage is having major knock-on effects in West Africa and beyond. It has disrupted economic activity and is costing people jobs. Last month, Sierra Leone's president sacked his health minister for what was perceived to be his inept handling of the epidemic.
In neighboring Liberia, the worst-affected country accounting for 50 percent of the death toll, President Sirleaf dismissed 10 government officials who had refused to return to the country apparently fearing they could contract the virus. Sirleaf said the sacked officials had "shown insensitivity to our national tragedy and disregard for authority."
In South Africa, thousands of miles from the countries affected, doctors and nurses in a maternity ward abandoned a visiting woman from Guinea after rumors started circulating that she had Ebola. Rigorous tests conducted in Johannesburg proved negative.
Planned events have been affected, too. The African Media Initiative, which was to host its annual gathering of media professionals in South Africa in November postponed the event, saying the move was "part of precautionary measures to prevent the entry of the Ebola virus into South Africa."
A statement from the AMI said the forum "is a Pan-African event with approximately half of the delegates coming from West Africa," adding that the event will be held in November 2015.
To say that Ebola has wreaked havoc is an understatement. It is arguably the biggest public health concern at the moment — at least in places where it is raging. Yet the fear and panic generated by Ebola is making many lose sight of the fact that treatable diseases, such as malaria, remain the biggest killer diseases on the African continent.
In some ways, African nations and the international community are reacting to Ebola the same way they react to terrorism. When a suicide bomber blows himself up in a crowded shopping mall and kills, say, 80 people, there is panic all over the place and urgent measures, sometimes desperate ones, are taken to hunt down the group behind the attack. But no country — even countries that are particularly vulnerable to terror attacks — has lost a person to terrorism every 30 seconds.
Yet the World Health Organization’s most recent statistics on malaria suggest that every 30 seconds someone in Africa succumbs to the disease, which is transmitted through mosquito bites.
"In 2012, 90 percent of the world's malaria deaths occurred in Africa and about 460,000 African children died before their fifth birthdays," the WHO 2013 malaria report said.
"It is one of the causes of household poverty because it results in absenteeism from the daily activities of productive living and income generation. Malaria also continues to prevent many school children from attending school due to illness, diminishing their capacity to realize their full potential."
That problem is highlighted in a feature Al Jazeera published this week on Nigeria's ailing health sector. A 17-year-old named Ibrahim Abbas came down with a fever in Lagos, Nigeria's commercial capital, and blood tests showed he had malaria. Healthcare providers refused to touch him, fearing he had Ebola. Others simply did not have medical supplies to treat his severe form of malaria. He eventually died.
Understandably the focus now is on Ebola. But when the disease is finally brought under control, Nigeria and many countries in sub-Saharan Africa will still be losing hundreds of thousands of people to malaria, and the disease will continue to keep others away from productive work. Malaria deaths happen quietly with no major TV networks beaming images of the afflicted dying around the world. The world, it seems, is used to them and they have become almost acceptable.
While it is absolutely imperative to combat Ebola, African nations need to commit as much energy and resources to fighting malaria by investing heavily in their weak health systems, many of which have been left to the poor masses to use while political leaders and their hangers-on jet off to European and Asian cities to seek better medical treatment.
To their credit, Nigerians are making progress in checking the spread of Ebola, as our piece suggests. But they cannot take all the credit. Part of the job is being done by foreign health care professionals from organizations such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Were Nigeria to confront Ebola on its own, relying on medical staff to whom it pays starvation salaries, that sometimes take too long, leading to strikes, it would be struggling and counting the dead possibly in the thousands.