The West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia are currently in a confirmed outbreak of the disease known as Ebola. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) as of Wednesday, July 2, 763 people were known to be infected and there had been 468 fatalities. The first cases began appearing in south-east Guinea back in February. By March, it had spread to Liberia, and in May, Sierra Leone confirmed that it too had cases of the disease. In June Medicins Sans Frontieres, also known as Doctors Without Borders, declared the outbreak “out of control.”
The first reported cases of Ebola appeared in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of Congo along the Ebola River. It was first brought to the attention of much of the public with the publication of Richard Preston’s book The Hot Zone in 1993. Caused by a virus,
it does not respond to antibiotics. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) the early symptoms resemble the flu with fever, headache, weakness, joint and muscle aches and loss of appetite. It can progress to include vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain and both internal and external bleeding. Symptoms can appear anywhere from 2 days to 3 weeks after infection. There is no known cure, and the disease typically kills 9 out of 10 people infected.
It is considered highly contagious and is spread by direct contact with body fluids. Healthcare workers treating victims of the disease are at particular risk of infection. One factor contributing to the rapid spread of the disease may be traditional West African burial practices, which involve the body of the deceased being washed by hand by members of his or her family.
Misinformation and fear are also aiding the spread of the disease. Liberia’s deputy health minister, Bernice Dahn was quoted by Reuters News Agency as saying, “In Liberia, our biggest challenge is denial, fear and panic. Our people are very much afraid of the disease.” She went on to explain, “People are afraid but do not believe that the disease exists and because of that people get sick and the community members hide them and bury them, against all the norms we have put in place,”
West African health ministers from affected and surrounding countries are currently meeting in Ghana to develop a regional plan to deal with the outbreak. On Friday, the WHO issued a warning to the neighboring countries of Male, Ivory Coast, Senegal and Guinea Bissau to be on the lookout for infected people spreading the disease into their countries. Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for MSF told reporters, “The WHO, the affected countries, and neighboring countries must deploy the resources necessary for an epidemic of this scale. In particular, qualified medical staff needs to be made available, training in how to treat Ebola needs to be organized, and awareness-raising activities among the population need to be stepped up.”