Ebola and the Elderly: Focusing on a Vulnerable Population

Certain diseases like pertussis and dementia are associated with distinct populations. Pertussis is generally linked to children and dementia is generally linked to older adults. While both diseases can affect atypical populations, health professionals cannot have the same mindset when rare diseases like Ebola are concerned.

Miguel-Pajares
The Ebola outbreak continues to make headlines around the world and the focus has been on adults and children. If one studies the media and research papers, older adults are nearly absent. The aging population remains sidelined from the Ebola epidemic although the disease has affected the elderly around the world. Some may argue that Ebola mainly affects adults and children but few reports have shown that the elderly are also casualties. The rate of casualties regarding the elderly may not be accurate since there is little focus on this population. How long will older adults continue to be sidelined from issues that also affect them? Ebola attacks the elderly in unique ways compared to adults and children. For instance, older adults are prone to disease and disability because of their age. Specific risk factors that affect older adults also include:

  • Injury and poverty
  • Development of non-communicable diseases
  • Social isolation and exclusion, mental health disorders
  • Elder maltreatment.

These medical conditions in addition to contracting the Ebola virus disease (EVD) make matters worse for the elderly.

Cases regarding the elderly and EVD are not widespread in the media hence this piece will highlight just a few of these instances. The first case is an elderly woman who tested positive of the Ebola Virus Disease in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, Nigeria. The elderly woman had been quarantined in the Ebola Isolation Centre because she shared the same ward with the late Dr. Ike Enemuo, a Port Harcourt-based medical practitioner who treated an ECOWAS diplomat with the Ebola virus. Dr. Enemuo was ill and receiving treatment at the Good Heart hospital in Port Harcourt. He died of Ebola on August 22, 2014. The second case is an 87-year-old woman from Madrid, Spain, who was isolated in the senior center where she lives. The elderly woman was driven in the same ambulance as Nurse Teresa Romero, the first person to become infected in Europe. A key point about this case is that the elderly woman had suffered a fall which made matters worse. Another case in Spain is 75-year-old Miguel Pajares, an elderly priest who was working in Liberia. He was carrying out missionary work when he tested positive for Ebola.

The goal is not to ignore populations that are affected by certain diseases. Health professionals need to have a holistic view for disease outbreaks, knowing that outbreaks still affect populations that are marginalized. As Ebola remains in the news, let us remember the elderly, people with disabilities, and more because each population faces unique challenges during disease outbreaks. Treatment is not just for certain groups, it’s for all groups affected. Health and media professionals can think outside the box when it comes to reporting events. If not, public health interventions may continue to ignore elderly issues around the world.

Sophie Okolo is the Founder of Global Health Aging.

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