By Kate Bass BSc
Since the Ebola virus outbreak was first reported in March there have been nearly 2,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. This makes it the most serious Ebola epidemic to date.
It has thus been declared an International Public Health Emergency by The World Health Organization (WHO). WHO personnel at outbreak sites have observed that the numbers of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak.
Ebola virus first presents as flu-like symptoms, but these soon develop into vomiting, diarrhoea, impaired kidney and liver function, and bleeding. It is often fatal in humans, with a survival rate of only 10%. It is not airborne, but spread through close contact with infected bodily fluids.
The case in Nigeria was an infected traveller entering the country, but no new cases have since been detected in Nigeria. Concerted efforts to trace anybody who may have been in contact with the traveller and monitoring of the movement of people from affected countries are underway, with support from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The outbreaks in other countries, however, are likely to last for some time.
WHO is coordinating a huge international response plan, which is due to continue for at least several months, with support from a range of countries, including disease control agencies, and United Nations agencies.
WHO Director-General, Dr Margaret Chan, has held discussions with ambassadors from Geneva’s United Nations missions in order to identify the most urgent needs within countries and match them with rapid international support.
WHO also has operational staff on the ground in infected countries to map the outbreak, pinpoint areas of ongoing transmission and ensure treatment facilities and supplies are directed where the need is most intense.
The World Food Programme has been delivering food to quarantine zones in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, to which over a million people have been restricted to prevent spread of the disease.
The CDC is installing computer systems in the hardest-hit countries to allow real-time reporting of cases and analysis of trends in order to facilitate a scaled-up international response.
The scale of the international response reflects the extent of the challenge and the extraordinary measures required to contain such a contagious outbreak in countries characterized by extreme poverty and dysfunctional health systems and hampered by a severe shortage of doctors and widespread fear.