Dr. Sheik Umar Khan is dead. The 39-year-old head of Sierra Leone’s anti-Ebola program, he saved hundreds of patients but was ultimately unable to survive the virus himself—killed by the disease he risked, and ultimately gave, his life to fight.
Dr. Khan no doubt knew when he contracted the disease that his odds of survival were very slim; there is no cure for Ebola, and a clear majority of people who contract the disease do not survive. And in addition to knowing that he would not survive the disease if he caught it, he also knew that his chances of catching it, despite protective measures, were significant; as my colleague Paul Seaburn has explained, it is, by the standards of bloodborne illnesses, highly contagious.
This places healthcare workers in a precarious situation, comparable to that of medieval plague doctors who risked their lives attempting to treat victims of the Black Death. It’s understandable that nurses in Kenema Hospital briefly went on strike last week following a series of several Ebola deaths among their ranks (their demands, though reasonable, went largely ignored by government officials); the fact that they are willing to continue to do their jobs at all, under the circumstances, demonstrates extraordinary commitment and bravery.
Healthcare workers shouldn’t have to risk catching a nearly-always-terminal illness and passing it on to their families; it would be nice if they could be vaccinated. But the disease is almost exclusive to West Africa, and west Africans as a demographic are poor—so the profit-driven multinational pharmaceutical industry, despite having a potentially effective vaccine in trials, has been dragging its feet.
There will come a time, most likely within the next 10 years or so, when the mortality rate of Ebola is reduced due to effective antiviral treatments and a vaccine will be available for those who are likely to come into contact with the disease. But none of this has happened yet—and, before it does, many brave healthcare workers in affected areas who are simply doing their jobs will fall victim to the disease. They know that, and they show up to work anyway because they know human lives depend on them. And they are the best of humanity; most of us will never find out what it’s like to do something that noble.