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How the Ebola outbreak compares to other killers

Doctors Without Borders staff prepare isolation and treatment areas for their Ebola, hemorrhagic fever operations, in Gueckedou, Guinea. --AP Photo/Kjell Gunnar Beraas, MSF

The Ebola outbreak centered in West Africa continues to expand its reach, with the World Health Organization recently announcing the infectious disease could  afflict more than 20,000 people within the next nine months.

In the countries most affected by the outbreak, family members of victims have become outcasts out of fear that they will transmit the virus. Panic about the virus is spreading globally.

For example, the UK-based Independent reported that a delegation of Brazilians cancelled a scheduled visit to Namibia’s Chamber of Commerce. Windhoek, the original destination of the travelers, is more than 3,000 miles from the nearest Ebola outbreak in Nigeria. The newspaper also noted that Korean Air halted flights to Nairobi despite an absence of Ebola cases in Kenya.

The evacuation of two Americans infected with Ebola to the US to receive treatment at Emory University Hospital sparked an outcry among Americans even though disease experts assured people that the virus could not be easily transmitted in a high-resource environment like the US where hospitals have rigid infection-control practices.

One of the problems with the fear generated by Ebola is its negative impact on the rest of the health system.

According to a recent NPR article quoting Dr. Thomas Frieden, head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “Urgent health needs are definitely going unmet” in Africa since people who are sick with conditions unrelated to Ebola are avoiding medical centers since they are afraid of contracting the virus.

Already overburdened and under-resourced health systems in West Africa are suffering from the heavy toll that Ebola is wreaking on health workers: so far it has killed over 120 of them according to the WHO. And as the Washington Post reported today, the attention given to Ebola is drawing attention from much bigger killers (some, like HIV or malaria, that kill about the same people every day that this outbreak has so far killed in six months).

To understand the health needs of the population in the countries most affected by Ebola, it is useful to compare the number of Ebola victims to the number of people who die from other causes.

According to the CDC, Ebola has killed a total of 1,552 people in 2014, with an estimated 430 people in Guinea (suspected Ebola deaths), 694 in Liberia (suspected Ebola deaths), and 422 in Sierra Leone (suspected and confirmed Ebola deaths).

Compared to the total number of Ebola cases, more than 12 times as many people in Guinea died of neglected tropical diseases and malaria combined, as shown in the screen grab below. The total number of Ebola cases in the world was similar to the total number of deaths from chronic respiratory diseases in Guinea in 2010, which appears as a small sliver in the screen grab.

Ebola IHMEThe next screen grabs show the top 10 causes of death in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone and how they have changed between 1990 and 2010. In 2010, malaria, diarrhea, protein-energy malnutrition, and lower respiratory infections are among the dominant causes of death. In Liberia, even the 10th-highest cause of death, preterm birth complications, caused about twice as many deaths in 2010 as Ebola has caused in 2014.

Top 10 causes of death, Liberia, 1990 and 2010

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Top 10 causes of death, Guinea, 1990 and 2010

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Top 10 causes of death, Sierra Leone, 1990 and 2010

Ebola IHME 4The Ebola outbreak deserves serious and global attention for many reasons. But as this outbreak continues to garner so much global attention, it is important to consider the even bigger impact it could have in reducing health system’s ability to respond to many other deadly diseases that already kill so many more people – largely due to lack of access to basic health care services and infrastructure.


About Author

Katie Leach-Kemon

Katherine (Katie) Leach-Kemon is a policy translation specialist at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME). Katie specializes in two of IHME's research areas, the Global Burden of Disease and health financing. Katie has helped produce IHME's Financing Global Health report since it was first published in 2009. She received an MPH from the University of Washington and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. Her work has been published in The Lancet, Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association. You can follow her on Twitter @kleachkemon.