The Ebola outbreak that began ravaging the nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone last February has advanced to being the deadliest Ebola epidemic in recorded history. Within these countries, death tolls have reached nearly 400 with more than 650 recorded infections.
Those numbers alone show the devastating mortality rate of Ebola. Without medical intervention, Ebola can be deadly in up to 90% of cases. With stabilizing support, that number drops to about 68%. However, those are still some tough odds to beat. Currently there is no cure or vaccine to manage Ebola.
MSF (Medicine Sans Frontiers/Doctors without Borders) and the WHO (World Health Organization) have been on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak since day one. However, the wide geographical spread of cases has made this outbreak particularly difficult to contain. MSF first sounded the alarm in April, calling this epidemic “out of control” and warned of it spreading to neighboring countries. However, they were contradicted at the time by the WHO, which called the outbreak, “neither an epidemic, nor unprecedented.”
The WHO has since changed their tune, calling on international communities to help stamp out this ravaging disease.
Part of the reason for the outbreak is the innate distrust many local residents have with government officials and medical staff. In rural areas, diseases are often attributed to curses or gods. Local doctors, trying to treat the disease with teas and herbs, have exacerbated the infection rate. The consumption of bush meat has also contributed to this problem.
In Liberia, the government has made it illegal to house anybody who is infected with Ebola. However, critics say this move may have the opposite effect it intends, creating fear among people to come forward with new cases.
Four medical workers have already died of the disease. As medical correspondent for NBC, Dr. Richard Besser puts it, “There’s nothing quite as frightening as stepping into an Ebola ward, knowing that one mistake, one slip of a mask or a glove, might lead to an untreatable deadly disease.”
Ebola, which has a 21 day incubation period, starts like most other illnesses. Aches, pains, headaches and eye infections are common complaints. For the lucky few, the disease will stop here, taken care of by the patient’s own immune system. However, for the unlucky majority, symptoms will slowly begin to morph into vomiting and diarrhea. While some patients are pulled back from the brink at this point, for victims that progress into hemorrhagic fever, a painful death undoubtedly lies ahead.
Slowly, the capillaries inside the patient’s bodies begin to burst. The organs start to fail and blood begins to pool in the body. Most noticeably, eyes turn red and hemorrhaging will occur from the nose, mouth, ears and various other orifices. As the body destroys itself, boils that appear under the skin begin to rupture. Most patients die shortly after. And because of the fragile and nearly liquid state of the corpse, discomposure is accelerated, making the body highly contagious.
For those who can’t afford to get help, and have family members die in their homes or their villages, the lack of proper equipment to move and contain infectious bodies is extremely problematic. Villagers can’t leave corpses rotting away in their homes, but they can’t touch them either, creating a paradox for those without access to thousands of dollars in medical hazmat equipment.
Although in the past Ebola has killed faster than it can infect (causing outbreaks to remain relatively short), the widespread nature of this particular epidemic means it’s been exceedingly difficult to treat. Now that it has made its way into densely populated cities, the situation could become dire.
Bart Janssens, director of operations for MSF, told the Associated Press that, “There needs to be a real political commitment that this is a very big emergency…Otherwise, it will continue to spread, and for sure it will spread to more countries.”
With no signs of the disease slowing down, Ebola has put the entire region of West Africa at risk. Furthermore, expanding global development and daily flights to North America and Europe from countries such as Ghana and Nigeria means that this outbreak needs to be managed on a global level.
MSF is currently at maximum capacity in the region and have expressed concerns that if further outbreaks develop, they don’t have the resources needed to create quarantine areas and treatment centers. This means that if the international community fails to act and fund treatment and education programs in this ravaged region, we could be faced with an extremely deadly disease spreading past our capabilities to contain it.