The 2014 Ebola outbreak is largest in history since it was discovered 40 years ago, and has come as a massive shock to the world. It’s claimed over 4,000 lives thus far, and while it began in West Africa, travel related cases have arisen in Germany, Spain, Norway, France, UK, and USA. The disease kills more than half of the people it infects.
The outbreak started in West Africa in Guinea, taking a hold in urban areas with widespread transmission in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, and Nigeria with localized transmission. There are now people who have tested positive for Ebola living in Texas and Spain. While new cases of Ebola continue to be reported from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, the World Health Organization has reported that it is highly unlikely that Ebola will become widespread in the west, where healthcare systems are very strong.
What is Ebola
Ebola is thought to have originated in fruit bats in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and was discovered in 1976 near the River of Ebola. The Ebola virus spreads by first fusing with cells lining the respiratory tract, eyes or body cavities, where the virus’ contents are then released into the cell. The genetic material takes over the cell machinery to replicate itself, and new copies of the virus are made and released back into the system. It takes between 2 and 21 days for a patient to show symptoms.
What are the Symptoms of Ebola
Early symptoms are a sudden fever, muscle cramps, fatigue, sore throat, and headache. These symptoms evolve into vomiting, rash, internal and external bleeding, and diarrhea. Patients die from dehydration and multiple organ failure.
How do you Contract the Virus
Ebola is contracted through direct contact with broken skin, or through the mouth or nose, from contact with the blood, vomit, feces, or bodily fluid of someone with Ebola. The virus can be present in urine or semen too. It is not airborne, like the flu, and is contracted through direct contact with someone who has the virus.
Ebola can be contracted through contact with bedding, clothing or surfaces also. It is unclear how long the virus can exist on surfaces, but there is evidence showing it can be up to six days. The virus can be killed with bleach and chlorine.
How is it Treated
There is no known cure for Ebola, nor is there a licensed treatment. The current strain is the most aggressive and deadliest scientists have seen yet, and patient zero, or the initial person to have contracted and spread the disease, has still not yet been identified. Those affected by the virus must be isolated and treated intensively by experts, given antibiotics to treat infection and intravenous fluids to fight dehydration.
Experimental drugs that show some promise are being used. Zmap is one drug, which attacks the proteins on the surface of the virus. Two RNA drugs that interrupt the genetic code of the virus preventing it from replicating are under study right now. Blood products from those who have survived the virus are an experimental potential treatment, as survivors of the virus have high levels of antibodies. Early treatment is key, but it is still not clear why some people survive the virus and others succumb to it.
The WHO says that research for new research will start soon and that potential vaccines will be available in 2016. It’s unlikely drug companies will invest substantially in new drugs, as they would only be used occasionally on small numbers of people. Experts say that for a realistic chance of success in the future, international agencies must provide the resources to invest in researching new drugs.
Who is at Risk for Contracting the Virus?
Ebola is not spread through casual contact and does not become airborne, and can only be spread by someone showing symptoms. Those at risk for contracting the virus are the family members of patients and health workers working in close contact with patients, but anyone who comes into close proximity with patients is potentially at risk.
When someone dies from Ebola, the viral load is very high and bleeding is a usual symptom before death, and those in close contact with the body and bodily fluids have a chance of becoming infected. In West Africa, the culture surrounding death and funerals has had an impact in the spreading of Ebola. When someone dies in Liberia and Sierra Leone, washing, hugging, and kissing the body is part of the burial ritual. It also includes braiding the hair if it’s a woman, or shaving the head if it’s a man. In other places where the outbreak has spread, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the virus is better understood and people know to stay out of contact with the body after the person passes away. In West Africa, getting this message across has been much more difficult, and the necessary cultural shift was not made quickly enough.
Managing the Situation
President Obama has just appointed Ron Klain, a former chief of staff for Vice Presidents Al Gore and Joseph R Biden Jr., to manage the government’s response to the virus, as concerns heighten about its possible spread.
Klain has been praised for his ability to deal with fast-moving political crises in the past, and will lead the efforts in containing the virus in Africa and managing the response to its arrival in the United States. His role will include identifying, isolating, and treating Ebola patients in the country to protect Americans and stop further spreading of the disease, while staying committed to stopping Ebola at the source in West Africa.