West African Ebola outbreak returns to Liberia

By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer

WHO staff
The World Health Organization is helping to train medical teams in Africa, so that they can better treat and prevent the spread of Ebola.

Last year, the West African nation of Guinea experienced a pretty wild outbreak of Ebola – a fatal virus that kills up to 90% of people who contract it. The virus spread to surrounding countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia, infecting about 27,600 people and claiming around 11,200 lives so far, in what’s now the deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. The United Nations predicted it would end by August, and Liberia was declared Ebola-free in May. Unfortunately, the disease has risen from the ashes, and health experts are working twice as hard to battle its spread.

Ebola is introduced to a human that comes into close contact with the infected body fluids of animals or other humans. Once the virus has settled in their bodies, it can take almost 3 whole weeks for any symptoms to show, which include: hot fever, severe weakness, muscle pain, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, rashes, kidney failure, liver failure, and internal and external bleeding.

Experts believe the current outbreak began with a 2-year-old patient in Guinea, who likely got it from a bat while playing in a hollow tree filled with the leathery critters. Since there is no cure for the devastating illness, medical professionals usually have to isolate the infected people and contain the virus from the rest of the population for protection… but this is where the problem comes in. See, in West Africa, it is humiliating for a person to be ill, so families hide their sick members and try to treat them at home. One issue with this is that tending to the sick at home exposes the family to the infectious bodily fluids!

Another problem is that it becomes harder to find and isolate the sick from the rest of the healthy population, especially since some flee the area when they discover they are infected. It certainly doesn’t help that these regions don’t have a strong medical system, and the locals often reject medical volunteers who try to help. Many of the people don’t even believe Ebola is real, so you can begin to see why this particular outbreak is so difficult to contain.

WHO education
Educating the young helps prevent future outbreaks.

Last year, the medical volunteer group called Doctors Without Borders said the outbreak was totally out of control. See, it’s only considered fully contained if 42 days pass without a new case, a benchmark that Liberia passed in May.

Little by little, the virus reached other countries during the outbreak, like Africa’s most populated nation, Nigeria. While most of the cases happened in West Africa, health organizations around the world have worked hard to make sure it doesn’t become a global problem.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the USA issued its highest alert level for the Ebola outbreak last fall. This marked only the 3rd time in its history that the CDC reached a level 1 alert, which calls for “all hands on deck” to deal with a specific crisis. Previously, a level 1 was issued for helping deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009.

The director of the CDC, Dr. Tom Frieden, said, “It’s even worse than I’d feared. Every day this outbreak goes on, it increases the risk for another export to another country. The sooner the world comes together to help Liberia and West Africans, the safer we will all be.” Fortunately, experimental drugs like ZMapp showed favorable results. The World Health Organization (WHO) pushed for more widespread drug trials, to pave the way for mass distribution of the cure to infected people. However, the drugs are still experimental and require more testing before they can safely be produced in large quantities. Supplies are also continually running low.

At the 69th United Nations General Assembly last year, where over 140 leaders gathered to deal with world issues, Ebola was a major topic of discussion. Experts originally estimated that the virus could infect upwards of 1.4 million people, but selfless doctors and medical professionals slowed its spread. In fact, TIME Magazine named Ebola fighters as their “Person of the Year” for 2014.

Images courtesy of World Health Organization and European Commission DG ECHO.