Ebola: The Hype over a Neglected Disease
- The Ebola virus is named after the Ebola River in Democratic Republic of Congo; region where the first outbreak occurred in 1976.
- Ebola causes viral hemorrhagic fever and kills up to 90% of people infected.
- Symptoms can take between 2 and 21 days to appear after victim contracts virus.
- Humans contract Ebola through contact with bodily fluids of infected animals or humans including sweat, blood and feces.
- The virus can also spread through bodily fluids in a post-mortem situation (contact with corpses).
While the Ebola virus has been identified since 1976, it only sparingly made the news over the years. In contrast, the current outbreak that West Africa has been facing since December 2013 is now considered to be “the biggest and most complex Ebola outbreak in history” (Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention). On August 8th, the WHO formally declared the epidemic a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) acknowledging that the “possible consequences of further international spread are particularly serious in view of the virulence of the virus, the intensive community and health facility transmission patterns, and the weak health systems in the currently affected and most at risk countries”. As of October 1st, the total number of likely, confirmed and suspect deaths related to ebola in the current W.A. outbreak amounts to 3,338 with more than 7,157 people still infected.
Ebola is a viral disease that is presumed to be transmitted among humans through manipulation of raw bushmeat (sourced from tropical non-domesticated mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds). Early detection is rendered difficult by the ordinary symptoms expressed (fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache) which are also common to the flu and malaria but, once the infection has fully taken place (see illustration below), a quick succession of vomiting, diarrhea, internal/external hemorrhage follows before death ensues. As it spreads from one individual to the next (mainly through the transmission of body fluids such as sweat), the virus grows exponentially as it occurs in hygiene lacking regions where sick family members have no solution but to be cared for by their immediate relatives (aggravating propagation rates). Even after death, the virus remains active until a contaminated body is either cremated or buried. It has become a common occurrence to witness traditional funeral practices where aid workers, dressed in anti-contamination suits, assist heartbroken families into manipulating an ebola infected body; creating an uncomfortable cultural clash between foreign helpers and deeply rooted African mentalities.
Why is there no vaccine or cure?
As of this writing, there is neither a vaccine nor a cure aimed at Ebola and, with one in two patients succumbing from the disease, development for a solution has been hindered by the lack of living subjects available for research. However, the duration of the current outbreak (the longest to this day), plus the international alarm attached to it, has triggered funding from the U.S Defense Department and the interest of smaller American (BioCryst, NancoViricides) as well as Canadian (Tekmira) pharmaceutical vendors into developing a treatment. While some of those experimental drugs tested on monkeys have shown recovery potential, none has yet to be applied onto a living human subject. Always a victim of low funding for research, the ebola virus now needs expensive human studies more than ever before it can safely be used during an outbreak.
Ebola in the U.S.: More than believe the hype?
With Health Aid Organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) treating patients and assisting local health agencies in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, foreign aid workers have themselves become victims of the virus (US individuals Kent Brantly, Nancy Writebol; an anonymous French nurse). In each occurence, the infected individual has been rapatriated to his home country and placed under strict quarantine to follow treatment. With such heavy emphasis on non propagation protocols, the recent unearthing of an ebola infected Liberia national travelling to the U.S. (Thomas Duncan) who possibly infected up to 18 people in immediate contact, it is no surprise that national uproar is now pressuring airline companies in better monitoring foreign travellers originating from ebola infected regions.
The Thomas Duncan case may push ebola scare in the U.S. to new heights but the disease remains, according to Dr. Peter Hotez, M.D. from the Sabin Vaccine Institute, an “enormous hype” where numbers are concerned. Death toll wise, the number of people who have died from Ebola during the current West Africa outbreak is comparable to the number of people who perish in drunk driving accidents in Texas over the same amount of time and about the same number that die of malaria in Africa every day. In the words of Dr. Hotez, Ebola remains “a scary but rare disease”.
- Ebola virus: Nine Things to know about the Killer Disease [2015-07-31; Susannah Cullinane and Madison Park, CNN]
- How the Ebola Virus spreads [2014-09-30; Michael Martinez and Jacque Wilson, CNN]
- MSF treating Ebola in Equateur Province (DRC) despite difficult conditions [2014-10-02; Médecins Sans Frontières]
- Ebola 101: The Facts Behind A Frightening Virus [2014-07-10; Linda Poon, NPR]
- Ebola Virus Disease [Updated April 2015; Fact Sheet N°103, WHO]