The Ebola outbreak is making daily news and instilling fear into millions. Yet a lot of people don’t know a lot about the disease itself and what’s going on. So here’s what is actually going on:
Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever that was first discovered in 1976. In 2006, it was established by the CDC that the disease can be traced back to fruit bats. (The infected fruit bat would then be eaten by a non-human primate and that animal would be consumed by a human not properly cooked and the disease could potentially be contracted). From there, Ebola is only passed by human to human contact, meaning the only way to get the disease is to touch the bodily fluids (blood, vomit, saliva, diarrhea, sweat, urine or corpse) of an affected person. Once contracting the virus, your body reacts harshly and that’s essentially what leads to death. Currently there is no vaccine or approved treatment, making the death rate incredibly high.
It all begins with an incubation period that could last up to 21 days; this is where someone may have the disease but they are not showing any symptoms yet. Being properly isolated during these 21 days after possibly coming into contact with someone that has Ebola is an essential protocol in trying to minimize the spread of Ebola. The first symptoms that develop include fever, headaches, sore throat, and other flu like symptoms. After progressing into the late stage, symptoms include: vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney function, and hypotension. This is also when internal and external bleeding begins. Even after death, the disease can survive on the surface of the corpse.
We are experiencing the seventh outbreak of the Ebola virus since the disease was first identified in 1976. This is by far the worst case yet, with more than 8,400 cases according to last week’s official numbers. In the past, outbreaks were shorter and much smaller in terms of numbers, so why is this outbreak so severe? First, the outbreak is taking place in an area much more urban than the past outbreaks. Currently, the outbreak is in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, where there has never been an outbreak before. There are entire cities with high populations living in tight quarters—perfect breeding ground for a contact-transmitted disease—that have essentially shut down in order to try and deal with the disease.
Previously, any outbreak has occurred in a village or more rural region where the disease physically cannot spread as fast because there are not as many people around. Second, there is poor health care infrastructure in West Africa, even without the Ebola outbreak. They do not have the man power or technological resources to handle the disease control alone. On top of that, it takes a long time to officially diagnose someone with Ebola because samples have to be sent away to more advanced labs, often in Spain, and it takes a few weeks for results to come back. The contributing factors also include the deficient proper use of barrier protection for workers like body suits, gloves, face masks, goggles and disinfecting equipment. Lastly, it is difficult to keep the healthcare workers from all around the world, doctors in Western Africa, patients, and the local West African community on the same page.
Isolation needs to be taken a lot more seriously that it is currently. That will help identify cases of Ebola and reduce the number of instances where potential contacts of an affected individual need to be identified after the fact. The lack of trust between healthcare workers and local community members also needs to be addressed. Many locals don’t understand or agree with the degree of isolation patients must have once they are diagnosed and choose to not bring them to a hospital at all—endangering them and others around them. In conclusion, these three countries need a lot of global support to get things under control.
As of last week, there were 4076 cases and 2316 deaths in Liberia, 2950 cases and 930 deaths in Sierra Leone, and 1350 cases with 778 deaths in Guinea. In the United States there have been 3 cases and 1 death. Americans are seriously concerned after Thomas Duncan became the first man to die in the United States after it was revealed that the Dallas hospital did not take serious enough precautions when he first came to them and actually sent him home.
From Duncan, two nurses have contracted the disease, one actually flying to Cleveland during her incubation period when she should have been isolated. President Obama has ordered that a team of about 30 disease experts, nurses, and doctors be formed that could be sent anywhere in the country on short notice if necessary. Screening at five major airports has also been installed to examine travelers from West Africa.
Lastly, the CDC is looking to make hospitals more prepared to treat Ebola patients. Many are concerned that this is not enough protection against Ebola for US citizens and are demanding that the president do more. Although it is essential for the United States to be absolutely prepared for the worst case scenario, we need to understand that the outbreak is in Africa. Although that’s a slightly comforting fact, it doesn’t lessen the fact that these countries will need a lot of outside support to gain control over Ebola.