The medical aid charity Médecins sans Frontières warned this week that Guinea faces an Ebola epidemic “of a magnitude never before seen” as the nation’s president appealed for calm amid a rising death toll.
Since January, Guinea health authorities have reported more than 150 suspected cases and nearly 80 deaths, scattered far across the country. The outbreak has led to travel alerts and thrust one of the world’s most lethal infectious diseases back into the spotlight.
What is Ebola?
“One of the most virulent viral diseases known to humankind”, reads the WHO’s alarming first sentence on Ebola, the group of five viruses with a case fatality ranging from 25-90% in humans. Ebola infects humans through direct contact with a sick person’s (or animal’s) blood or bodily fluids, or through contact with contaminated objects (such as needles and bedsheets). A “viral haemorrhagic fever”, symptoms at first resemble those of a normal fever, infections spread quickly among family and friends caring for sick people, and then among medical staff who haven’t confirmed the cause of sickness.
Unfortunately, the disease shares early symptoms with any number of other other illnesses, ranging from a passing fever to malaria, cholera and meningitis. Between two and 21 days, infected people might have red eyes and a rash, or suddenly experience “onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and sore throat”, “followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding”.
Contagion survives so long as the virus is in people’s blood and secretions, and with no vaccine or specialized treatment, victims must simply try to beat the disease with “intensive supportive care” to fight off near constant dehydration. Ebola requires lab tests to confirm, and usually appears around tropical rainforests.
Where is it?
Guinea, the west African country with a sliver of land reaching the Atlantic, is the broad center of March’s outbreak. On 23 March, authorities confirmed infections nationwide, from rural, southern towns to its capital, the port city of Conakry, where over two million people live. As doctors must quarantine the sick with extreme precaution, the wide range of infections could be disastrous. As of Monday, there have been 78 deaths from 122 suspected cases since January; the nation’s health ministry has confirmed 22 of those deaths as due to Ebola. It took six weeks for the ministry to confirm Ebola since suspected cases first appeared.
On Tuesday, Saudi Arabia suspended visas for people from Guinea and Liberia. Senegal, to the north, has closed its borders. Liberia, to the south, has reported four deaths among seven suspected and confirmed cases. Sierra Leone, almost surrounded by Guinea’s borders, reports five suspected cases, and has begun screening anyone who wants to cross the border. Reuters reports that the regional airline Gambia Bird has delayed service to Conakry, the capital. A coordinator for Médecins sans Frontières told the BBC that this could be “an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen”. Liberia has warned people to stop having sex, kissing and shaking hands, and many people have taken to wearing gloves.
What’s being done?
Without a vaccine or specific treatment, teams try to contain an outbreak immediately, meaning quarantine of sick people and the destruction or sterilization of anything that may be contaminated. Careful, standard practices – washing hands, wearing masks and gloves, clean gowns and safe injections – can mean the difference between life and death.
Medical staff must often wear full-body protection when helping the sick, who may be placed in containment tents. Preventing further infection may also mean culling and burning infected animals, restricting movement from towns and quickly burying the dead. In short, everything possible is done to reduce and limit contact between infected people and animals. Doctors’ can treat infections that would complicate patient’s condition, but they are otherwise limited to helping sick people stayhydrated and breathe healthily. The BBC reports that Guinea hasbanned the sale and eating of bats, which are often served in the country’s southern forests.
Besides efforts by national health ministries, several international groups, including the WHO and Doctors Without Borders, are helping investigate and respond. The CDC has issued a travel alert for Guinea, and the EU pledged €500,000 to fight the highly contagious disease.