The Ebola Epidemic

The current outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa has become a public health emergency requiring global attention. This virus first appeared in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 and has now unprecedentedly reappeared. The year’s outbreak started in May in Guinea and spread to neighboring countries Sierra Leone and Liberia. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared this a Public Health Emergency of International Concern. In response, the United Nations has established the Mission for Ebola Emergency Response.

Photo by European Commission DG ECHO via Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ebola has already claimed the lives of almost 3,000 people, including dozens of doctors and nurses who treated the infected patients. In one case, a man who flew from Liberia to Nigeria was quarantined on his arrival and later died of Ebola. A nurse who treated him and an official who came into direct contact with him have since died. It’s that infectious.

Ebola is a fatal illness that spreads through direct contact with infected blood or bodily fluids (saliva, vomit, semen, feces) or indirectly through contact with contaminated environments. Humans were initially exposed to it through wild animals; in West Africa, “bushmeat” is considered a delicacy and consequently a source of Ebola. Because of the nature of the disease’s transmission, the challenge for health workers is to provide proper treatment and, at the same time, avoid getting infected themselves. So, they are taking precautions by gearing up in protective equipment.

One of the rare qualities of this disease is that it is very infectious even after death. It is especially dangerous in the remote villages near tropical rainforests, where people live in close contact with each other. According to the WHO, those at high risk for getting infected are people who handle Ebola-stricken deceased bodies during burial ceremonies.

The biology behind the virus is as follows: the virus fuses with cells lining respiratory tract, eyes, or body cavities; the DNA (genetic material) of the virus is released into the cell; the virus DNA takes over and replicates itself; new copies of the virus are produced and released; the virus spreads. The symptoms of the disease include fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache, and soar throat followed by vomiting, diarrhea, and internal or external bleeding in some cases, according to the BBC.

While hundreds of thousands of people are at risk, the West African health system is collapsing due to overflowing hospitals, shortage of medical staff in treatment centers, limited access to proper treatment, and the large number of deaths among health care workers. Although there are no bans on travel for people traveling to countries affected by Ebola, health care workers are isolating patients with suspected symptoms.

The United States is demonstrating efforts to help contain Ebola. It is providing $1 billion in aid to the hardest-hit countries and has sent over 3,000 troops to “help coordinate relief efforts for the raging epidemic.” These efforts include distributing supplies and information kits to families to give them better knowledge on protection. “We will not stop, we will not relent until we halt this epidemic, once and for all,” said President Obama. He also assured that Ebola is unlikely to spread to the U.S.

Regarding treatment, some potential Ebola vaccines are under development as experimental immunological and drug therapies are being tested. For the latest statistics on the outbreak, you can visit the CDC website.

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