A victim becomes contagious when symptoms first appear, anywhere from two days to three weeks after infection, making the spread of the disease — through contact with bodily fluids of the victims — even harder to contain.
As of Friday, the virus had killed 729 people in about 1,300 known cases in our region of West Africa, an outbreak termed the worst in history by the World Health Organisation. By now, sadly, that death toll has no doubt risen.
There is no direct treatment or cure for Ebola, which kills up to 90 per cent of victims, depending on which of five strains of the virus is involved. In the current outbreak, centred in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, the death rate has hovered around 60 per cent.
The WHO has thrown US$100 million into efforts to contain the disease and end the outbreak. Meanwhile, many countries have issued travel advisories warning against visiting that area while their domestic airport health officials stay alert for cases of passengers who become ill while flying, especially if they’ve recently been in that region.
Despite the horrific nature of this outbreak, the chances of Ebola spreading in more developed countries seem remote, even if a few air travel-related cases did occur. Since the virus is not airborne, modern epidemiological efforts, First World hospitals and sufficient numbers of health-care professionals would very likely quickly contain any such cases, experts agree.
For nations with poorer levels of sanitation and inadequate medical facilities, however, Ebola — if it spreads via air travel to other countries with Third World conditions — could cause untold further misery. Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea have lower GDPs than Haiti, experts point out.
The virus is believed to be carried by a number of tropical animals in Africa, though primarily the fruit bat. Though Ebola’s episodic jump to humans isn’t completely understood, one plausible theory is through contact with such animals’ blood after they’ve been butchered for bushmeat.
Experts point out severe deforestation in West Africa — which continues at alarming levels — has increased contact between humans and displaced wildlife.
Cultural practices in the region, such as ritual hand-washing of the dead, could be helping to spread the disease. Meanwhile, the general lack of health facilities means there’s often widespread distrust and fear when medical personnel do appear, hobbling efforts to track cases.
Regardless, the WHO has correctly identified the biggest need as more health-care workers to track cases and contacts and teach people about the disease and its causes.
Stopping this outbreak could take months. Longer term, hopes are being pinned on a new vaccine set to begin testing in the US in September. A cruel reality for victims is that Western drug companies haven’t invested much in fighting Ebola simply due to low expected financial returns.]]>