The African Ebola outbreak that keeps getting worse

It began early this year in the forested villages of southeast Guinea. For months, the infected went undiagnosed. It wasn’t until March 23 that the news finally hit the World Health Organization. And by then, Ebola had already claimed 29 lives, the organization reported in a one-paragraph press release.

Since then, the organization has dispatched nine additional updates on a ballooning outbreak that’s received modest notice in the West, but has sent waves of panic across the African continent.

March 24: The outbreak is “rapidly evolving.” 59 dead. 86 confirmed cases.

March 27: The sickness spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. 66 dead. 103 confirmed cases.

March 30: “This is a rapidly changing situation,” WHO reported. 70 dead. 112 confirmed cases.

April 3: Ebola “has a case fatality rate of up to 90 percent,” the organization said. 83 dead. 127 confirmed cases.

On Sunday, after the number of dead topped 90 and Mali and Ghana recorded their first suspected cases of the disease, trouble began in remote villages.

A mob attacked an Ebola treatment center in Guinea, accusing it of infecting the town with disease, according to Reuters. In other villages, people stopped shaking hands.

“We fully understand that the outbreak of Ebola is alarming for the local population,” one doctor told the Independent. “But it is essential in the fight against the disease that patients remain in the treatment center.”

What terrifies people so much about Ebola?

For starters, there’s no cure. Because it’s such a rare disease that primarily affects poor African villages, big drug companies perhaps haven’t seen enough economic opportunity to study the virus, Bloomberg reports.

Then there’s the fact that Ebola deaths are particularly gruesome. The disease comes from an infected animal – most likely the fruit bat, which infects monkeys, apes, pigs and, finally, humans. The disease is not airborne, but spreads through blood, secretions or other bodily fluids. Its early symptoms include fever and intense weakness, WHO says, then deepens with bouts of diarrhea, vomiting, and internal and external bleeding.

The migratory pattern of the outbreak, which aid workers call “unprecedented,” has baffled doctors. Outbreaks before this have stayed in remote pockets of the country, but this iteration shot hundreds of miles from southwest Guinea to the coastal capital of Conakry.

Exacerbating the situation is the scarcity of medical professionals in Guinea. According to the World Bank, there are only .1 physicians per 1,000 people — among the lowest ratios in the world, below even Afghanistan.

This has fed animosity among some in Guinea toward the government for its perceived inability to dispense medical services — or even enforce quarantines.

“You have a lot of people who have recovered from civil war and are living in war-ravaged areas with very poor infrastructures,” said Laurie Garrett of the Council on Foreign Relations. “As soon as word goes out of quarantine, you have people start trying to escape and get away from the clutches of authorities.”

This has already happened, some in Guinea claim.

“How can we trust them now?” Conakry resident Dede Diallo told Reuters. She’s stopped working — and keeps her kids at home, where she says it’s safe. “We have to look after ourselves.”

SOURCES: Steve Monroe, deputy director of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases; World Health Organization. Graphic: The Washington Post.
SOURCES: Steve Monroe, deputy director of the CDC’s National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases; World Health Organization. Graphic: The Washington Post.
Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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