Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa

29th Aug 2014

[Source: TThe World Health Organization (WHO) Ebola outbreak numbers as of July 23]

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared an international health emergency following the worst ever Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. The virus has claimed more than a 1000 lives spread across Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

There is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola, containing the disease through quarantine and limiting transmission from human to human, is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus. But given that the outbreak has spread from more remote villages to urban areas, stopping the movement of people and hence the virus is a difficult operation.

The current Ebola outbreak is the largest outbreak of the virus ever recorded. It started in Guinea in February. Guinea has never had Ebola cases before, and has spread to urban areas. The virus has spread to the capital, Conakry, and also into neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone. A man who flew from Liberia to Lagos in July was quarantined on his arrival and later died of Ebola – the first case in Nigeria. One of the nurses who treated him and an official who came into direct contact with him has since died.

What is Ebola?

The Ebola virus was first identified in 1976 in 2 simultaneous outbreaks, in Sudan, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name. Ebola is a viral disease which is often fatal in humans. Previous outbreaks have been mainly in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforest regions. The virus is thought to be transmitted to humans from wild animals (fruit bats are considered to be the natural host of the virus), mainly through preparing and eating bush meat. The virus then spreads from human to human through close contact with a person suffering from the Ebola virus.

Symptoms of Ebola

Initial symptoms can include a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and a sore throat. Following the initial stage the person will become weaker and then suffer from vomiting, diarrhoea and – in some cases both internal and external bleeding. The patient will usually die as a result of the excess fluid loss. The virus spreads between humans through contact with bodily fluids, so those caring for a person with Ebola are most at risk, this includes family and healthcare workers. In addition, mourners at funerals can contract the virus from the dead body so some local funeral customs, such as touching or washing the body, can potentially spread the disease.

The incubation period can last from two days to three weeks, and diagnosis is difficult. The human disease has so far been mostly limited to Africa, although one strain has cropped up in the Philippines.

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) says the current outbreak is “unprecedented” in the way the cases were scattered in multiple locations across Guinea, hundreds of kilometres apart, and says it is a “race against time” to check people who come into contact with sick people.

All previous outbreaks have been smaller and occurred in places where Ebola was already known, so healthcare workers have been able to educate people about the risks involved in spreading the disease. As this outbreak is in a new country there has not been the time to educate people about Ebola and all the potential risks of caring for and burying the sick.

Doctors and nurses are on the front line and need protective clothing to prevent them from contracting the disease, when caring for an infected patient. However, Ebola has already claimed the lives of dozens of doctors and nurses during this outbreak, including Sierra Leone’s only virologist and Ebola expert, Sheik Umar Khan. This has put a further strain on the health services of these West African states, which have long faced a shortage of doctors and hospitals.

The WHO said that new cases of Ebola have slowed in Guinea and that stabilising Liberia is the priority in order to get the spread of the virus under control. It will take months to get the outbreak under control and have asked the International community for support. WHO staff are going house to house in some regions of Sierra Leon, in search of infected people. It is feared that there are lots of people out there with the disease who have not been traced yet, many will be cared for by family, placing them at risk, or will be buried before the teams can get to the area.

Rachel Kayani

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