Understanding the Deadly Epidemic
Like many nations in the African continent, Guinea, a country of 11.5 million people, also remained hidden from the developed countries’ gaze. But, the month of April, this year, brought this small, struggling nation to international attention. It was not caused by yet another sectarian violence, but a deadly strike by the ‘Ebola’ virus. Then, Guinea’s south Eastern neighbor Liberia confirmed several Ebola cases, and it quickly marched to Sierra Leone and other poor African nations.
Ebola has earned its frightening reputation because we know very little details about it (unlike quotidian diseases like Malaria or tuberculosis). We haven’t discovered any vaccination against the virus and this infectious virus can kill up to 90% of the people who catch it. Up to now, scientists have discovered five species of Ebola virus, four from Africa and one native to Philippines. Of the five Ebola sub-types, the ‘Zaire’ strain was the first to be identified and is considered most deadly. WHO’s preliminary test in Guinea confirmed the presence of Zaire strain in the viral outbreak.
The Zaire species of Ebola was identified in the year 1976. Of the 318 people infected in that year by Ebola, 280 died. Later, in 1996, in the northeastern African country, Gabon, a chimpanzee carcass scavenged from a group of boys caused Ebola outbreak. It resulted in 21 deaths (of the 31 infected). The Zaire strain has also struck Congo more than three times. Since 1976, more than two dozen Ebola outbreaks have occurred causing more than 1,600 deaths. Its rare occurrence, and that too in very poor countries, didn’t gain much attention and the funding to study the epidemic was hard to come by.
However, Ebola is an incipient pandemic. It wouldn’t lead to an apocalypse or can’t spread fast enough like flu. In the field of infectious diseases, Ebola is one of the most virulent pathogen, but it isn’t as contagious as common cold or even avian flu. Ebola doesn’t spread through air or water. It can only spread if a person is in physical contact with the body fluids of someone who is sick or has died from the virus attack. Nonetheless, the virus might continue to afflict poor African nations because people due to scarcity of food often opt to eat bats, apes and other wild creatures, found dead or captured live. Ebola is a deadly virus if you catch it, but it isn’t that easy to catch.
Experts who have studied this epidemic are of the opinion that basic supportive health care, with blood (and blood product) transfusion and fluid management, is enough to cut the death rate of Ebola. According to America’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Ebola virus causes hemorrhagic fever, affecting multiple organs in the body, accompanied by bleeding. The CDC says that early symptoms of Ebola include onset of fever, muscle pain, weakness, headaches and a sore throat. These non-specific symptoms can be easily mistaken for diseases like malaria or typhoid fever. The early symptoms lead further to vomiting, diarrhea, and impaired liver and kidney functions. Both WHO and CDC have acknowledged the fact that the virus doesn’t spread through a plane journey.
When public health experts get ahead in West Africa and gradually control the spread, the disease would downtrend and eventually go back to its hiding place. In the future, these struggling African nations need proper infection control measures more than the sympathy.