There's No Cure for Ebola, but This Commonsense Fix Could Prevent the Next Outbreak

Fighting hunger in West Africa might lower the epidemic's death toll.

Dr. Kent Brantly. (Photo: Tami Chappell/Reuters)

Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Dr. Kent Brantly, the medical missionary who had contracted Ebola while helping its victims in West Africa, walked out of the hospital Aug. 21, cured. At a press conference, the 33-year-old Texan called his recovery a “miracle.” 

The top-tier care Brantly and a stricken colleague who also recovered, 59-year-old nurse Nancy Writebol, received at Emory University Hospital certainly contributed to their recovery, but they also had another key advantage: They were far better nourished than the typical West African when they fell ill.

“Clearly, for any acutely ill patient, nutritional status is extremely important,” said Bruce Ribner, medical director of the infectious diseases unit at Emory University Hospital, at the press conference. “If you have somebody who is well nourished and you have somebody who is poorly nourished, and they suffer the same illness, infectious or otherwise, the person who has better nutrition has a better survival outlook.”

The country where Writebol and Brantly worked, Liberia, has seen more than 1,000 reported cases of the disease, with more than 600 deaths. (U.S. health officials say the actual figures are much higher.) Liberia is one of the world’s poorest nations, and a 2012 government-led survey found that almost 40 percent of the population is chronically malnourished.

Although “Ebola kills even people in good health,” said Fabienne Pompey, a spokeswoman for the United Nations’ World Food Programme in West Africa, poor nutrition can quicken the progression of the Ebola virus. Those with access to better nutrition are more able to fight disease. This may be one reason why Ebola, which has no known cure, has broken out in some of the poorest African countries. It also underscores the importance of the work that aid agencies such as the World Food Programme are doing to address chronic malnutrition in the countries most affected by Ebola.

Raising overall nutritional health in sub-Saharan Africa could help lower the death rate should an epidemic hit again. But Ebola has worsened food insecurity in the affected countries, Pompey said, by disrupting trade and agriculture. With many cross-border and intercountry supply routes cut off because of quarantines, some areas simply aren’t getting the food they need, she added.

“The crisis is evolving in a context of chronic fragility, with high poverty, high market dependency, poor crop yields, and low health indicators,” said Pompey. “The situation is made further complex by the continued fragility following from decades of conflict and civil strife.”

The complexity of a deadly virus such as Ebola hitting amid so much fragility is not lost on Brantly, who solicited prayers and assistance for the people of West Africa from his hospital bed and again as he was being released from Emory last Thursday. With a more concerted effort to alleviate poverty and hunger in West Africa, perhaps these areas will be better prepared for the next deadly outbreak.

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