Can anything stop West Africa’s outbreak of Ebola?


The Ebola virus (AFP/Getty Images)

It began in the forested villages of southeastern Guinea. The deaths came slowly in the first weeks. But by March 23, when the World Health Organization released its first dispatch on the burgeoning Ebola outbreak, 29 had died of a disease that is among the globe’s most feared.

Despite the international response, local governmental resources and a flood of volunteers, nothing has slowed the outbreak, which has spread from Guinea to Liberia and into Sierra Leone, where the death toll has doubled in the past week from six to 12.

“This is worse than expected,” Robert Garry, a Tulane University virologist who’s in Sierra Leone, told NBC News. “I am fearful that it could get much worse.” Supplies, he said, are running low. “We have to ration them,” he said.

Across the three countries, more than 220 people have died — more than 200 in Guinea alone — according to recent World Health Organization reports, making this outbreak one of the worst on record. “Despite efforts on the ground, the number of confirmed cases has increased in the last few weeks,” the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders said.

Why hasn’t anything slowed the disease?

Several factors are at play in Guinea. There is a persistent reluctance among the infected or ill to go to the hospital, Doctors Without Borders reported. Another complicating factor is that families are transporting their own dead, which the organization said caused a “multiplication of affected areas.”

“The main challenges we face on the ground are resistance within communities and follow-up with people who have crossed borders and may be infected,” said Emergency Coordinator Marie-Christine Ferir. “Ebola is a disease that scares people and that is perceived as mysterious, but people can overcome it.”

Ebola predominantly spreads through the blood, secretions and other bodily fluids. It kills more than half of those it infects. And when it does kill, it’s gruesome. The first signs of infection are fever and crushing weakness. The symptoms worsen to include diarrhea, vomiting and internal and external bleeding.

Misinformation and superstition about the disease in Sierra Leone have slowed aid efforts. In addition to telling people to refrain from eating “bush meats” — monkeys, chimpanzees, bats or dead animals — a fact sheet the Sierra Leone government published last week takes on some ingrained myths:

1. Can mix of ginger, honey, garlic, onion and vinegar cure Ebola?

No, it is not true. There is no cure for Ebola Virus Disease. You must go to the nearest health facility for proper management/treatment if you or someone suspect yourself to have Ebola infection.

2. Is it true that drinking alcohol prevents Ebola virus transmission?

No, it is not true. Alcohol does not prevent Ebola. In fact, excessive consumption of alcohol is harmful to your body.

3. Is it true that Ebola is a curse?

No, it is not true. Ebola is a viral disease transmitted to humans from wild animals.

Health officials said the fear that has taken hold in some parts of the country is making things worse. “We had instances where people got agitated … and were making it difficult for health workers to perform their duties because we were having several riots,” Sidi Yahya Tunis, spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, told Voice of America. “So, as a result, some of our health workers felt insecure to go their health posts. But, as it is right now, those health workers are in their health posts, and they are performing their duties as they are supposed to be doing.”

Tunis called the situation an emergency. “The ministry, the government and the partners are all treating this very seriously,” he said. “As we speak right now, the World Health Organization has brought in experts, and we had some of those experts helping in the Sierra Leonean medical staff with this disease.”

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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