There is no available vaccine for the Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever that has been spreading across Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia since February. Over 200 people in these West African countries have succumbed to the deadly Ebola virus in the past few months.
There are several strains of the Ebola virus across sub-Saharan Africa. The Zaire Ebola strain is the most deadly with a ninety percent mortality rate. The strain that began with the outbreak in Guinea has a mortality rate of more than sixty-five percent, with over 300 cases reported and more than 200 dead.
Spotting the disease is sometimes difficult because Ebola’s symptoms mimic the symptoms of other diseases like malaria and cholera. The incubation period, or time between exposure and apparent symptoms, is anywhere from two days to three weeks; time during which the infected could unintentionally spread the virus. Symptoms include fever, pains, and headaches followed by nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
Bleeding can occur internally and through any open orifices. The World Health Organization lists the Ebola virus as a biosafety level four agent and the Center for Disease Control lists it as Category A bioterrorism agent. Ebola is deadly enough to be used in chemical warfare.
Guinea has sustained the worst impact with around 185 deaths. Liberia has had approximately nine deaths, and Sierra Leone less than ten deaths. The comparatively low death rates in countries surrounding Guinea may have lulled some governments into complacency. Websites like The New Dawn Liberia warn against such dangerous nonchalance and lack of sensitization to Ebola in their article entitled A reminder about Ebola. They question whether the Liberian Health Ministry authorities are disseminating enough information to protect the public and empower the populace to stop the spread in Liberia.
The Ebola virus is easily spread by touching any bodily fluids of the infected, such as sweat or blood. There are also warnings against eating bushmeat, as monkeys, fruit bats, and pigs may be carriers. Factors contributing to the spread of the virus include hospitals with sub-optimal resources, families keeping the infected at home, and funeral rituals that may involve unsafe handling of the dead. Lack of education on the subject also has adverse affects. In a FAQ published by the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health & Sanitation on June 4, answers are given to citizens’ questions about Ebola. The Awareness Times website answers such questions as ‘Can mix of ginger, honey, garlic, onion and vinegar cure Ebola?’ and ‘Is it true that Ebola is a curse?’. Distrust of care at local hospitals and stir-fry cures for curses in remote communities are examples of how lack of education and superstitious beliefs are exacerbating the situation.
Since there is currently no cure for Ebola, prevention seems the best approach. And the best preventative measures are education in the affected areas. Although reports of deaths have been slowing down, new Ebola cases have started popping up in towns and villages not directly adjacent to heavily infected areas.
A worst case scenario was put forth by a UK researcher from Lancaster University. Derek Gatherer warns of a situation where Ebola is not contained to remote villages separated by difficult to traverse roads. As reported by SciDevNet:
“The spread of Ebola in a crowded modern mega-city, where the number of cases could balloon beyond our capacity to quarantine sufferers and test contacts, certainly represents a concern.”
As for what can be done until we have an Ebola vaccine available, Gatherer states:
“… we just have to do what was done in Guinea: swamp the area with medical staff and use quarantine and tracing of contacts to suffocate transmission as quickly as possible.”
[Image via Al Jazeera America]