Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ebola strikes again

"Ebola virus virion" by CDC/Cynthia Goldsmith - Public Health Image Library, #10816

In alarming news, an outbreak of the Ebola virus that started in West Africa is now being called the worst in history. The three affected countries - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea - are reporting over 670 deaths. Worse still, medical personnel now number among the victims. The health minister of Guinea said that the virus probably spread from local communities eating infected bats; bats serve as the animal host for the virus. People have also been advised to stay away from eating rats and monkeys.

The Ebola virus is highly infectious, with a mortality rate of upto 90 percent. Patients with Ebola often have severe internal and external hemorrhaging - they're basically bleeding to death. (If you want to know more, Ebola and its other deadly cousins, like the Lassa and Marburg viruses, are profiled in Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, a book I read and loved as an undergraduate. And when I say loved, I mean it scared the daylights out of me. No, really. I challenge you to read it and look a coughing man in the face without flinching).

Liberia has largely shut down its borders, and quarantine measures are being put in place across the affected areas. But while these measures were going on, a Liberian man with Ebola flew into Lagos, Nigeria, and died at one of the largest hospitals there, prompting fears that the virus might now spread into the densely-populated, bustling city; health care officials worry that it would be virtually impossible to quarantine such a large area.

The disease is new to West Africa, and has been flaring up intermittently for nearly five months, frustrating health care officials. Moreover, local customs encourage family members to care for the sick and personally prepare the deceased for burial, further increasing the chances of transmission. Many also express scepticism towards Western medicine, and are not particularly welcoming of doctors decked out in protective regalia, including full body suits and gloves.

In truth, there's a lot we don't know about Ebola and its effects. Quarantine methods are effective in curbing its spread, in part because its mortality rate is so high - an infected person may not live long enough to pass on the virus to many other people. Let's hope that the outbreak is contained soon, and that in the meantime we don't succumb to what some are calling an "epidemic of fear".

Update: The Economist has a very informative graphic about the outbreak here.

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