by Thom Kilburn
It starts with the sudden onset of a fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headaches and a sore throat. Then comes the vomiting, diarrhoea, rashes, impaired liver and kidney function, and in some cases, both internal external bleeding. This is how Ebola virus disease (EVD), a severe and often fatal illness begins.
Currently the deadliest outbreak of Ebola in recorded history is ravaging its way across West Africa—as of the first week of August, the virus has hit Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia and Nigeria, killing roughly 800 people and infecting about 1,300.
EVD first appeared in 1976, when the scientific community knew very little about the formerly-termed hemorrhagic fever. Since the first outbreak, which killed 280 people, the virus has come and gone. Variations of EVD constantly circulates in animals—most prominently in fruit bats and primates. The virus spills over into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals. Once a person comes in contact with an infected animal, EVD can then spread to other humans through direct contact with bodily fluids.
Global anxiety has worsened over the spread of the virus as there is no known vaccine or cure to prevent transmission. The fatality rate of the current outbreak has been about 60 percent, although the disease can kill up to 90 percent of those who catch it.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), health-care workers are liable to be infected while treating patients with suspected or confirmed EVD. This has occurred through close contact with patients when infection control precautions are not strictly practiced. The recent outbreak has caught mass media attention worldwide as several doctors have caught the disease, including Samuel Brisbane, a renowned Liberian doctor, and Sheik Umar Khan, the top Ebola doctor in Sierra Leone—both of whom recently died from EVD.
Dr. Margaret Chan, the WHO director general, recently met with leaders of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, the three most affected countries, to discuss the introduction of a $100 million plan to deploy hundreds more medical professionals in support of overstretched regional and international health workers.
“This meeting must mark a turning point in the outbreak response,” said Dr. Chan, according to a WHO transcript. “If the situation continues to deteriorate, the consequences can be catastrophic in terms of lost lives but also severe socioeconomic disruption and a high risk of spread to other countries.”
Although two American medical missionaries have contracted the virus in the recent outbreak—both of whom were immediately flown back to the U.S. to be treated in isolation—most health experts agree that an EVD outbreak in the U.S. would be quickly managed.
On the other hand, Stephen Hoffman and Julia Belluz from the international media group Vox, say the disease is taking such a toll in West Africa because the international medical and research communities are not designed to treat diseases that affect the poor.
“Right now, more money goes into fighting baldness and erectile dysfunction than hemorrhagic fevers like dengue or Ebola,” they write. “The spread of the disease is not caused by a lack of human ingenuity or scientific capacity to come up with Ebola remedies. It’s because this is an African disease, and our global innovation system largely ignores the health problems of the poor.”