In the earlier days of the West African Ebola outbreak, it was not uncommon to hear people note that we should not panic about Ebola because, after all, far more people are killed from Malaria than Ebola. This is of course an irrelevant argument. That is like telling a person who has lost their family in a tragic airplane accident that it isn’t so bad because, after all, far more people die in car crashes than aircraft crashes. For example, on August 5th, James Bell write in the Guardian, in a piece called Concerned about Ebola? You’re worrying about the wrong disease:
Since the Ebola outbreak began in February, around 300,000 people have died from malaria, while tuberculosis has likely claimed over 600,000 lives. Ebola might have our attention, but it’s not even close to being the biggest problem in Africa right now. Even Lassa fever, which shares many of the terrifying symptoms of Ebola (including bleeding from the eyelids), kills many more than Ebola – and frequently finds its way to the US.
I’m not picking on James Bell here. A lot of people said things like this, and the facts are true, though as I said, there is almost always (actually, in exactly N-1 scenarios within a given domain of scenarios) an argument that goes like this, and it really isn’t particularly relevant unless one is tasked with dividing up a fixed set of resources that will be used for a fixed set of problems. Resources rarely come that way and problems are rarely solved that way. As I pointed out earlier, consider the thought experiment where you have $10,000,000 that you want to give to either developing an Ebola vaccine, or a Malaria vaccine. Since billions have been spent on developing a Malaria vaccine and there still isn’t one, your donation would be a drop in the bucket. Retrospectively, it would be equivalent to something like the combined costs of couriers and mail by researchers working on a Malaria vaccine over the last few decades. Or the cost of coffee and donuts in the break room. Or conference travel fees. Or something like that. The point is, a bunch of millions of dollars might actually produce an Ebola vaccine given the starting point we have now, or at least, move us a good deal in that direction.
But now, we can ask if Ebola in the countries that are heavily affected right now is still “minor” compared to Malaria.
This is a matter of numbers and the numbers are hard to come by. James Bell notes that between February and July, inclusively, there had been over 300,000 malaria deaths, I assume world wide. So the comparison is not really relevant; we should be looking at what is happening specifically in, for instance, Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone (or the three combined perhaps). Comparing world wide figures to a regional outbreak is a bit like reducing the Malaria death rate by shifting from numbers from countries that have endemic Malaria to include the global population.
It is hard to know how many people die of malaria every year, and the quality of the data varies considerably from country to country. A fairly recent study (here’s a discussion of it) suggests that an older estimate of 600,000 deaths per year should be doubles to 1,200,000 deaths per years. Having worked and lived in a region with some of the worst malaria (measured numerous ways) for several years, I can easily accept a doubling of numbers. If we assume that 1.2 million is right, by the way, Bell’s number of 300,000 is actually conservative.
Using data from that malaria study and WHO’s Ebola data, we can make some comparisons. I’m including all the information so you can check my work.
Here we have data from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone. The population number and malaria deaths per year are both from the aforementioned study and pertain to 2012. Then I divided malaria deaths per year by 12 to get a monthly value. I’m more comfortable working in months than years because an Ebola outbreak is normally short lived, and the number of deaths changes dramatically from month to month.
Following this we have the total number of Ebola deaths per country (summed in the right hand column as are the above mentioned data) and the approximate number of months of the outbreak. Then, the total deaths divided by the number of months. This constitutes a low-ball estimate of deaths per month from Ebola for the given expanding outbreak. Here we can see that in the comparison between Malaria and Ebola, it is not clear that one is a greater threat than the other (142:92, 49:67, 145:144).
Then we have the August-only monthly number of deaths. Here we dee that Ebola is huge compared to Malaria. So, back when people were saying “Malaria is worse,” in late July and early August, Ebola was starting to prove them wrong.
The last two numbers are calculated for all three countries combined. Here we are going out on a limb, and it is better statistically to crawl out on a thicker limb than a thinner limb. I made some estimates here, and those numbers conform to what is being talked about by WHO and others. If Ebola continues to spread at its current rate the daily number of new cases could be between 150 and 300 by the beginning of January. I state these as low vs high estimates, but actually, they are both conservative. Multiplying this by 30 days in a month, and dividing by 2 to approximate the ca 50% mortality rate, we have conservative numbers for Ebola that leave Malaria in the dust. Even if the doubling of estimated Malaria death rates should be doubled again, Ebola will be a bigger factor than Malaria.
|Malaria Deaths Per Year||1706||586||1734||4,026|
|Malaria Deaths Per Month||142||49||145||336|
|Ebola Deaths Total||508||400||461||1,369|
|Months of outbreak||6||6||3||–|
|Monthly average Ebola deaths||92||67||144||303|
|August Ebola Deaths||644||148||224||1,016|
|Estimated Janurary Ebola Deaths (low)||–||–||–||4,500|
|Estimated Janurary Ebola Deaths (high)||–||–||–||9,000|
So that is why we should stop saying that Ebola is not Malaria, so relax about Ebola.