West Africa's Ebola epidemic deserves more attention than one US patient

There was breaking news on Tuesday. The United States now has a case of Ebola in Texas.

The infected man flew here from Liberia but showed no symptoms when boarding the international flight to the United States. (Medical experts say Ebola is contagious only when a person exhibits symptoms.) He did later seek treatment for symptoms that we now know are Ebola, but the hospital apparently did not recognize them. (The folks he contacted there might have reason to worry.)

That man is now in an isolation unit at a first-class hospital in Texas. Reportedly, he is in critical condition, but he is surely receiving the finest care available.

Still, to hear some in the media, we are on the verge of an epidemic of Ebola here in the United States. As I was watching the reports on TV on Tuesday night, I kept wanting to shout to the announcer: "Catch your breath. This is one case. Go back and cover Africa where it is a real epidemic."

Ebola is a terrible disease, even if just one person is infected. But it's time to slow down and look at the real message, the social justice message, that the Ebola epidemic is sending us: Ebola spreads because extreme poverty exacerbates the disease. In much of West Africa, even rudimentary health care systems often do not exist, and people often lack the education that would make them aware of the origins of disease or sanitation practices. Those realities coupled with traditional practices -- like kissing bodies of the dead before burial -- contribute strongly to the spread of disease.

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As we watch the sad epidemic in West Africa and become aware of the widespread deaths and fear, we ought to feel called to contribute to groups like Doctors Without Borders and others who are working to alleviate this suffering. And I for one am certainly glad that President Barack Obama has deployed some of the U.S. military to help quell the epidemic.

The next time Pope Francis talks about the poor, the victims of Ebola might come to mind.


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