Obviously Ebola has been in the new of late, and most of the news coming to of West Africa has not been very encouraging; however, I came across a very interesting news tidbit about the effective treatment and control of disease spread in the 80,000 person community of Harbel in Liberia, essentially a company town for the Firestone corporation.
So why does the Firestone company, known for its tires, have a huge town with thousands of employees in West Africa? The short answer is rubber. Natural rubber comes from the sap of the the tree Hevea brasiliensis, which grows in tropical climates. It may be worth a little bit of an aside for some history. As the name of the tree would imply, it is originally native to Brazil. After the vulcanization process was discovered by Charles Goodyear in the early 1800’s, and stable, strong rubber was developed, a huge market for its wonderful material properties emerged. Brazil had a short lived monopoly as producer of the latex sap for making rubber, and the Amazon experienced a “rubber boom” economy, as wealth poured into the region, and native peoples were enslaved as adventurers flocked to the region to develop infrastructure into the Amazon to find and tap more and more trees. However, in 1876, in a daring bit of agribusiness industrial espionage and bio-piracy, the British explorer Henry Wickham (who was later knighted for doing this), smuggled seeds from the Hevea brasiliensis out of Brazil and back to England, where they were dispersed to various tropical British colonies (e.g. Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, and of course, Africa), breaking the Brazilian rubber monopoly. This unequal distribution of access to rubber was to later play a big part in the demand for war supplies in WW2. With the rise of mechanized warfare, there was a huge demand for military uses of rubber, and the control by a few large nations of rubber, was an element of success on the industrial production side of the war. Incidentally, most of the Brazilian rubber production in WW2 went to the US, which was unfortunately responsible for another wave of forced labor in the Amazon, and another cycle of economic boom and bust.
Now returning to Harbel, Liberia, because the production of rubber can involve dangerous solvents, Harbel had protective material, such as productive full body suits for people working with hazardous materials on hand and the proper training to use them. Although not necessarily the same protective gear as used by microbiologists and virologists, it is apparently equally protected. The important thing is that staff had the training and preparation to use appropriate barrier protection and effective isolation measures.
So the key is that given the right training, preparation and organization, this community in West Africa has been very effective at controlling the spread of Ebola.