A public health emergency has erupted in West Africa. On March 25th the World Health Organization (WHO) and Guinean Ministry of Health reported an outbreak of Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in several of districts throughout the country. At the time of the announcement, 86 suspected cases and 56 deaths were recorded. The virus has since spread to neighbouring countries Sierra Leone and Liberia while the number of cases rises to 600 and the death toll nears 400.
The health crisis has only continued to worsen as methods of control remain difficult. A report from Doctors Without Borders highlights the existing limitations to fighting the outbreak, stressing the need to deploy more resources. Director of Operations, Dr. Bart Janssens, states that “the epidemic is out of control.”
Formerly known as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever, EVD is a disease that stems from five distinct strains: Bundibugyo, Zaire, Reston, Sudan, and Taï Forest. The disease was first discovered in 1976 during a series of outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan. Community transmission originated from handling the blood, organs or secretions of infected animals. Human infection results from contact with the bodily fluid of a carrier. While EVD strains have been located in the Philippines and China, documented evidence of illness or death among these strains is absent. Deadly outbreaks remain local to West and Central Africa.
Ebola is highly fatal, with up to a 90% death rate. Symptoms initially appear flu-like, including fever, sore throat, headache, and muscle pain. This progresses to diarrhea, vomiting, compromised kidney and liver function and bleeding. Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment method or available vaccine. Patients may only rely on proper nutrition, hydration, and oxygen. Both drug therapies and vaccines are currently under examination. Indeed, the lack of effective treatment makes preventative measures all the more important.
During the past four decades, over twenty ebola outbreaks have been recorded. The ongoing crisis in West Africa stands as the largest EVB epidemic since 1976. Though previous outbreaks almost mirror in scale (e.g. 1995, 2000, 2003, 2007), the current outbreak is one of the deadliest strains of the virus.
The WHO has produced an “aide-memoire” to better inform vulnerable populations on precautionary measures. While many may abide by the instruction manual, fear and misunderstanding of the disease have impeded public health efforts. Several victims have reportedly fled or gone into hiding from mistrusting international health forces. Meanwhile, the simple act of handling a deceased body can collectively infect dozens.
On July 2-3, the WHO held an emergency meeting among eleven African health ministers in Accra, Ghana. Members of the meeting agreed to strengthen collaboration going forward. The WHO will increase its operational response with a new team of experts while creating a sub-regional control centre to manage support.
Unfortunately, an end to the epidemic is not in sight. The WHO’s assistant director-general of health security, Keiji Fukuda, posits that “we are going to be dealing with this outbreak, minimum, for a few months to several months.”