The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has caused global alarm. As one of the world's most infectious and deadly diseases, with no cure, the level of fear surrounding Ebola is to an extent expected. However, much of the fear is rooted in misunderstandings. Dispelling these misunderstandings is a major challenge in tackling Ebola and is critical to furthering our knowledge about the disease and efforts to control it.

Ebola in Guinea. Credit: The European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO)

At IDS, researchers are investigating the complex forces (or ‘drivers’) behind the emergence and spread of diseases which are transmitted from animals to people and are known as zoonoses. Although Ebola is now being spread by human-to-human contact, it is zoonotic in origin. Fruit bats are thought to be the most likely natural host for the Ebola virus. IDS researchers are also investigating the social contexts in which zoonoses often emerge and the contending narratives surrounding disease control. Research – drawing together social and natural science, and engaged with local people, international agencies, and national and local governments and practitioners - can lead to better theory, improved mutual comprehension, and better-informed measures and practices to manage and control disease.

Misunderstanding one: Chopping down trees causes Ebola

While there is good evidence that bats are the natural reservoir for the Ebola virus, the complex interactions that cause the disease to spillover to humans are as yet unclear.

A popular environmental narrative claims that rapid and unprecedented deforestation of primary forests is leading to increased human-bat contact in West Africa for the first time, making transmission of the disease to people from bats more likely. However, research by IDS's Melissa Leach and others has shown the upper Guinea forests have been a dynamic mosaic of forest, savannah, and farmland for centuries, with people in this region having long co-habited with bats.

Over-simplified views of one-way deforestation feed popular ideas that stereotype and blame rapacious farmers and loggers for their current disease predicament. They do not help us understand Ebola's origins. Meanwhile misleading messages that Ebola comes from eating bushmeat have dangerously deterred people's appreciation of the real risks of transmission – from bodily contact with infected humans.

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Misunderstanding two: People in Africa are ignorant of effective ways to deal with diseases like Ebola

The difficulties medical teams have sometimes had in establishing effective community relations during the current Ebola epidemic have led to some wild generalisations. People in West Africa are not living in archaic, unchanging tradition, refusing to engage with modern concepts of health.

However, the dimensions of cultural context remain real and relevant as disease possibilities, and therefore as logical explanations of worrying events and circumstances, even to the educated. People can live with multiple framings of disease and outside intervention, and can switch between them according to context. So, although outside scientific knowledge is crucial to containing the Ebola virus, local public behaviours and attitudes can and should be seen as part of cultural logics that make sense given regional history, social institutions and experience.

For this reason, an anthropological perspective is important for disease control efforts, which should include building good community relations, working with traditional authorities and seeking to understand local ideas and practices.

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Misunderstanding three: Ebola is a one-off event

Ebola is one of a group of diseases transmitted to people from animals that are known as zoonoses. Ebola is rightly gaining much attention as it was only identified in 1976, is extremely contagious and has a high fatality rate. It is also proving far more difficult to control than previous epidemics of zoonotic disease such as SARS and avian influenza.

However, since 1940, more than 60 per cent of infectious diseases newly affecting people in Africa have been transmitted via animals. Globally, the top 13 zoonotic diseases are responsible for 2.2 million human deaths every year, most in low- and middle-income countries. Even where they don't kill, their effects still devastate poor people's lives and hamper development efforts. Ebola is a terrible disease, but known deaths from it still number fewer than 8,000 to date.

To say all this is to highlight the terrible impact of other zoonoses, which receive relatively little attention. It is also to stress the importance of increasing our knowledge about neglected zoonoses. IDS researchers are working alongside vets, geographers, epidemiologists and others in multidisciplinary projects helping to tease out the complex forces behind zoonotic disease emergence and transmission, offering new theory as well as practical solutions.

It is not reason to be less concerned about Ebola. The current exponential increase in Ebola infections and the resulting terrible social, economic and political consequences demonstrates the dangers and tragedies of an unchecked epidemic. It also highlights the underlying development and health system failures that have contributed to this becoming a crisis of such proportions.

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Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO (cc on Flickr)

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