The Bioterrorist Threat of Ebola in East Africa and Implications for Global Health and Security

By Amanda M. Teckman - 24 May 2013

Last year’s natural outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in Africa alarmed global health experts because of the disease’s increasing appearance in Central and East Africa. The greater frequency with which Ebola is appearing raises questions about human accessibility to the virus and human usages of the virus for harmful purposes. The increase in natural outbreaks in the region, coupled with a possibility of a terrorist group recruiting experts to acquire the virus and to prepare it to use as a bioweapon, should lead policymakers to consider the risk of a deliberate outbreak. This prospect is worthy of consideration, particularly in East Africa due to the history of terrorist attacks by different groups in the area; the potential for these groups to obtain Ebola in the field; the lack of political capacity in the region and global will to develop a vaccine; and the pathogen’s natural occurrence in the region. The possibility of a deliberate outbreak in East Africa is a global health and security issue because of Ebola’s contagiousness in a globalized world; the increasing rate at which Ebola is appearing; the fear that could potentially arise from misinformation during an outbreak; and the lack of a vaccine. Based on an analysis of the conditions that make an Ebola bioterrorist attack in East Africa a potential threat, there are several recommendations for changing or enhancing global policy with regard to infectious diseases in general and Ebola specifically. These measures will better prevent and mitigate the spread of a deliberate outbreak and lessen the effects of a natural outbreak.

Policy implications

  • Policymakers need to recognize the benefits of strengthening global political will and regional capacity to develop an Ebola vaccine so that terrorists or other groups are deterred from considering obtaining the virus to use in a deliberate outbreak.
  • Public health organizations should intensify surveillance and prediction of natural Ebola outbreaks in East Africa; knowledge of natural outbreaks can help mitigate a deliberate outbreak.
  • Global increased sharing of information and resources is key to preventing the spread of infectious diseases, and collaboration should be encouraged; immediately after a potential Ebola case has been identified, it should be shared with the World Health Organization (WHO) so that more resources can be dedicated to an investigation into whether the outbreak is natural or deliberate and in order for misinformation to be limited. Additionally, biosecurity infrastructure should be enhanced to increase state capacity to fight infectious diseases and biological events.
  • Members of governmental and nongovernmental organizations working in East Africa should be trained in infectious disease outbreaks and in how to prevent and mitigate the spread of such pathogens; in a globalized world, increased knowledge and awareness are paramount to limiting infections and fatalities.