Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two separate outbreaks that occurred at the same time. One was in Sudan and the other in the Democratic Republic of Congo close to the Ebola River, hence the name. The haemorrhagic fever crossed the species barrier in Africa from contact with infected primates, fruit bats, and other animals hunted for their meat. It is a severe ailment, killing as many as 90 percent of those that contract it. There is no cure and, says the WHO, “outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests.”
What is Ebola?
The World Health Organization has raised the alarm about the scale of the outbreak of Ebola in West Africa that has now taken more than 4,400 lives
How Ebola Spreads
Contact with infected people
Human-to-human transfer of the virus comes about through contact with bodily fluids.
This can happen with direct transmission through broken skin or mucous membranes or indirect contact with areas contaminated with bodily fluids and wastes.
Burial rituals in which people touch the deceased are also a way in which the Ebola virus spreads.
Sexual activity can be a way in which the disease is transferred from one person to another.
The Symptoms of Ebola
Relatively mild at first before becoming severe
The incubation period after exposure can be as short as two days or as long as three weeks.
In its early stages, an Ebola infection might show up as flu-like symptoms – headache, intense weakness, muscle pain, and sore throat. During this phase it can look similar to several other illnesses such as malaria, typhoid fever, or cholera.
Then comes the really nasty stuff, vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, poor kidney and liver function. Later, patients start to bleed internally and externally, mostly through the nose, gums, and ears.
There is no known treatment other than re-hydration and hoping for the best.
Patients are infectious as long as the virus is present in their blood. One man still carried Ebola in his semen 61 days after the onset of the illness.
Outbreak in West Africa
Began in Guinea in February 2014
The first case of Ebola in 2014 occurred in the West African country of Guinea; it has since spread to Liberia, and Sierra Leone. These are very poor countries with rudimentary health-care systems and primitive sanitation.
It has also reached Nigeria’s largest city, Lagos, via a plane passenger from Liberia. If it gets into the city’s overcrowded slums it could cause havoc.
One case has shown up in London, England carried by a refugee claimant and a doctor working in West Africa came down with the disease when he returned to Texas.
Experts say it is unlikely to spread beyond Africa. However, SARS escaped from its host country, China, in 2003 and caused deaths in Canada, Singapore, Hong Kong, and several other countries.
The WHO is describing this outbreak as the worst in history in terms of the number of infected people.
So far, the fatality rate in the West African epidemic is about 60 percent.
Massive effort to halt outbreak
The World Health Organization has earmarked $100 million to contain epidemic, but it’s an uphill task.
Tom Geisbert is a microbiologist at the University of Texas. He says the current outbreak of Ebola is difficult to bring under control because it covers such a large geographic area where health-care workers are spread very thinly.
Reporting from the affected area, the BBC’s Farai Sevenzo says “People are unwilling to go to hospitals to be screened even though early detection is the best hope of survival. They have seen that those who have been admitted rarely make it out again, dying in isolation without the comfort of their family around them.”
Sometimes infected people disappear from treatment centres hoping to find a way to prolong their lives.
And, there’s another problem. Some people are buying into conspiracy theories that Ebola is the result of a medical experiment that went wrong. As a result, they are steering clear of Western health care.
The Reuters News Agency reports (August 1, 2014) that in Sierra Leone “Security forces will enforce a quarantine on all centres of the disease and help health officers and aid workers to work unhindered, following attacks on health workers by local people.” In other places where the disease is active schools and government offices have been closed.
WHO chief Margaret Chan says (August1) “This outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it. If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”
The Final Journey
“Ebola Virus Disease.” WHO, April 2014
“WHO Director-General, West African Presidents to Launch Intensified Ebola Outbreak Response Plan.” WHO News Release, July 31, 2014.
"Ebola: Sierra Leone Calls in Troops as WHO Mobilizes $100-million Plan.” Reuters, August 1, 2014.