There is something depressing about the fact that it has taken a sick Spanish nurse to put Ebola back on the front pages. Since the summer, some 3,400 West Africans have died, but interest in the story here had waned. So long as the disease did not make the nine-mile leap across the Straits of Gibraltar, the moat which keeps all nasty things from Africa at bay from fortress Europe, a sense developed that it could quietly be forgotten — or left to the aid charities.
No longer. Spain’s public health authorities are investigating how a nurse who treated two missionaries in a Madrid hospital — who had contracted the disease in Liberia and Sierra Leone — became infected in spite of the protective clothing she was wearing. The nurse had been on holiday since treating the now-deceased missionaries and it is not clear where she had gone, but it seems likely that she contracted the illness through an as-yet unidentified breach in the barrier nursing techniques used to treat patients.
We have become used to these panics in recent years. Sars and bird flu were both grimly forecast to cause mass fatalities. Six years ago, the government rather hysterically warned that the next pandemic would cost up to 750,000 lives in Britain and 50 million worldwide. ‘Socio-economic disruption will be massive,’ it concluded. But we have, so far, been spared. Until July this year just 393 people worldwide have died of bird flu, not one of them in Britain.
Ebola has already proved more deadly than bird flu or Sars (which has killed 775 people worldwide). Yet apocalyptic forecasts are again likely to prove wide of the mark. We are not ‘overdue’ a global pandemic of infectious disease, as Professor Roy Anderson, chief scientist at the Ministry of Defence, put it in 2005.