Ebola was first discovered in 1976 after two outbreaks: the first in Nzara, Sudan, and the second in Yambuku, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Yambuku is close to the Ebola River, from which the disease has taken its name.
Fruit Bats are suspected to be the natural carrier, spreading the disease amongst other wild animals without being affected themselves. Ebola is spread to humans by eating infected bush meat. It then spreads from person to person by direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected people or by direct contact with contaminated surfaces or materials (e.g. bedding and clothing). As a result, most people get the disease by giving care to those already suffering from it, either by directly touching the victim’s body or by cleaning up body fluids. Ebola spread during the Yambuku outbreak mostly through the use of shared needles at the Yambuku Mission Hospital.
To diagnose Ebola, other more common diseases with similar symptoms such as malaria have to be discounted. Blood samples are then tested to confirm the diagnosis.People cannot spread the disease until symptoms appear, starting between two days and three weeks after getting Ebola. First stages include fever, muscle pain, joint pain, sore throat, and headaches. As the person gets sicker, stomach cramping, loss of appetite, vomiting, and diarrhoea usually follow. A rash can develop, and the victim’s liver and kidneys stop working properly. By this time, some people begin to bleed inside and outside the body. Death is usually caused by low blood pressure because of fluid loss. Between 3 and 9 people out of every 10 who get sick, have died in past Ebola outbreaks.
Of the five types of Ebola, three have caused large outbreaks in Africa. The Zaire Ebola Virus is responsible for the current outbreak becoming the most deadly in West Africa’s history. Between 1976 and 2013, the World Health Organization had thankfully only reported 1,716 cases. As of 22 October 2014, 9,964 suspected cases have been reported, resulting in the deaths of 4,881 people. The current Ebola Zaire outbreak has therefore killed more people than all previous Ebola outbreaks combined. In August, an International Public Health Emergency was declared. Alarmingly the World Health Organization admits that there could be as many as 20,000 cases by November if the spread of the disease is not stopped.
This particular outbreak of Ebola Zaire began in March 2014, when hospital staff alerted Guinea’s Ministry of Health of a strange disease in the southeastern region of Nzerekore. It caused fever, diarrhoea and vomiting before death and it was later diagnosed as Ebola. From there it spread to the capital Conakry, and from there to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Senegal and Nigeria. Fortunately, the World Health Organization has declared that the outbreaks in Nigeria and Senegal are over, since there have been no new cases reported since 5th September 2014. However, Mali has now confirmed its first case after a two-year-old girl tested positive. Unfortunately there have also been more cases in both Liberia and Sierra Leone, mostly in the capital cities, Monrovia and Freetown.
Previously Ebola outbreaks were in small villages in Central Africa, near tropical rainforests, so the sick were already alone and the spread of the disease could be stopped. The current outbreak is reaching bigger towns and cities, so more people are catching the disease before it can be stopped. Modern transport is also spreading the disease. The outbreak in Nigeria was traced back to an airplane passenger travelling from Liberia.
Currently there is no licensed medicine for Ebola Zaire. In rich countries victims are kept alone in intensive care, where their blood oxygen levels and blood pressure can be maintained at the right level and their body organs supported. Oral rehydration therapy (slightly sweetened and salty water to drink) or intravenous fluids are also given. When in close contact with patients, health-care workers wear face protection, a clean long-sleeved gown, and gloves.
But the African countries affected do not have strong public health systems. Qualified doctors and nurses are in short supply, and they lack the appropriate money and equipment. Medical workers are therefore spreading the disease. A Spanish nurse became sick after returning home from working with infected patients. Craig Spencer, a New York doctor became sick after treating Ebola patients in Guinea. Dr Spencer is the fourth person to be diagnosed in the US. The first left Liberia travelling to Dallas before he became sick. He died on 8th October 2014. Two of his nurses became infected and are now recovering in hospital.
Thankfully potential medicines are being developed. ZMapp is a new drug, although it has not yet been tested in humans. The US National Institute of Health has begun testing a new Ebola vaccine on chimpanzees. The World Health Organization has identified at least two likely experimental new vaccines and tests are expected to be complete by the end of December 2014.
There may be hope of a cure but for now, countries like Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia need medicines, medical supplies and safety equipment for health workers, including gloves and protective masks. They also desperately need quarantine units, food and hygiene kits. Ebola can no longer be ignored as a localised problem, but it does need to be stopped before it spreads too far. While politicians bicker and more people die, find out how you can prevent an outbreak turning into a plaque by going to.
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