Ebola – what it means for a business community feeling at risk

Before the current outbreak of Ebola, West Africa was best known as an area rich in minerals – in Liberia, iron ore and timber were the main exports, Sierra Leone was well known as a source of diamonds, chromite and rutile, a form of titanium dioxide, Guinea for bauxite and iron ore and Nigeria for oil, which accounts for 35% of its GNP. These industries are all significant employers of both local and expatriate workers. For expatriates in particular, given the generally very poor state of local healthcare and the high incidence of a range of serious illnesses such as Dengue fever, TB and HIV, as well as malaria and range of respiratory illnesses, international health insurance cover which guarantees access to both a fast diagnosis and rapid evacuation was already seen as an essential element of any benefits package. With the Ebola epidemic now sweeping through the region, the cost to the local economies will be huge – one estimate from the World Bank suggests the cost could easily exceed $32 billion in lost revenues. For expatriate workers who may not be able to flee the region easily, how worried should they be by the Ebola threat and more to the point, what should they do if they think they are at risk? Ebola is a viral illness where the initial symptoms can include a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and a sore throat, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The problem is, such symptoms are common to a far less dangerous range of illnesses, all of which are common in the region. What follows, though, is vomiting, diarrhoea and- in some cases both internal and external bleeding. The disease spreads amongst humans through direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids or organs, or indirectly through contact with contaminated environments. Even funerals of Ebola victims can be a risk, if mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased. In Spain, where nurse Teresa Romero Ramos's conditions remains extremely serious, it has been reported that she contracted the illness after she accidentally touched her own face with an infected glove. The disease spreads rapidly in such circumstances – the virus can fuse with anything from the respiratory tract through to eyes or body cavities. The virus’s genetic code is then released into the healthy cell where it begins the process of replication and spreading through the body. The incubation period can last from two days to three weeks, and diagnosis is difficult, as the initial symptoms are not unique. Rapid diagnosis is vital, together with immediate access to a range of facilities which give support to the body’s own immune system. In London, for example, where William Pooley was successfully treated, the focus was on traditional support such as rehydration, painkillers and antibiotics to fight secondary diseases. He was also treated with the experimental drug ZMapp. Facilities such as those at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead, north London are rare, so having international private health insurance cover which can access evacuation flights and transport to the very small number of these specialist medical facilities worldwide is vital. APRIL International UK's managing director Debbie Purser comments, “The Ebola outbreak is unusual, as it has spread quickly and it is particularly deadly. However, workers throughout the world in a range of front line roles whether humanitarian or commercial face equally dangerous diseases on a daily basis. Whilst Ebola is a particularly frightening disease because of the way it attacks and kills and because the survival rates thus far are so low, in fact the basic precautions workers need to be aware of are similar for many serious diseases – access to a fast diagnosis and evacuation to suitable medical facilities are often the key. Our assistance providers, the first point of contact for any policyholder who falls ill, are staffed by multi lingual medical experts who are on hand 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They are usually able to tell at an early stage how serious a condition is and what the next medial steps must be, including ordering and arranging emergency medical evacuations.” The Ebola epidemic will hopefully soon be brought under control, but for workers throughout Africa and parts of Asia, the threat of contracting a deadly disease looms large every day whether malaria, TB or typhoid. For these people the lessons are clear – make sure you have a good quality international health insurance plan.