Something deadly is creeping across African borders, undetected.
Since February, an Ebola outbreak has spread from the remote southeast of Guinea across the fluid boundaries of West Africa into Sierra Leone and Liberia. 85 new cases were reported in the second week of July alone, helping to push the death toll to just over 600, and increasing pressure on the global health community to bring the epidemic under control.
But it’s not so easy. The early symptoms of Ebola are hardly unique and therefore they are difficult to detect. The most common signs are fever, vomiting, bleeding and diarrhea. As the infection progresses, individuals experience internal bleeding, an inability to clot blood, organ failure, and a shutdown of their immune system.
Ebola isn’t airborne, and it can’t survive for very long on surfaces, but it is highly transmissible through contact with blood or bodily fluids. Once infected, up to 90% of victims die (in the case of the current Ebola outbreak, this rate is around 56%).
The first Ebola outbreak occurred in the 1970s, and it claimed 280 lives. As of mid-June, the death toll of the current outbreak was 350, and it has since almost doubled to 603.
So how does the largest and most deadly Ebola outbreak to date get brought under control? Bart Janssens, director of operations for the medical group in Brussels, says this outbreak is particularly challenging because of the mobility of the infected populations and their proximity to major hubs like the capital cities of Guinea and Libera.
The disease can spread more easily than ever with so many outbreak locations and the ease at which individuals can move across borders. Because the virus has a latent period of 21 days, by the time symptoms appear and become contagious many individuals have already crossed a border and brought the virus to another location.
A lackluster international effort?
Given the regional impact that the Ebola outbreak is already having, and what it is still capable of, many feel that the international community has failed to understand the severity of the situation. With no cure or vaccine, medical experts agree that it is absolutely critical to contain the disease before it gets out of control.
Experts are calling for a real political commitment to the reality that this is a major threat to both general health and economic stability.
There has been movement in the past month to approach transmission reduction and prevention from many angles. The WHO has been consulting with anthropologists to stop practices such as eating bush meat or embracing deceased Ebola victims at funerals, and at an emergency meeting in Ghana in early July, health ministers representing 11 countries in the affected region adopted a common strategy to respond to the epidemic.
They agreed to collaborate more closely in order to ensure the outbreak does not spin out of control. The strategy involves WHO opening a sub-regional control center in Guineau to provide technical support.
As the Ebola virus crosses borders and spreads between countries, it becomes increasingly apparent that this is everyone’s problem. As we saw with the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, a disease can now span the world in a matter of days. What begins as one community’s problem ends up a global concern.
21 Jul 2014