7 August - The Ebola epidemic which is ravaging West Africa is all over the daily news. The deadly disease often strikes Sub-Saharan Africa. In the past, not more than a thousand people were affected yearly. But the current outbreak in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Nigeria and Guinea is having a much bigger impact than the previous ones in 2007 or 2012. This is why the World Health Organization (WHO) is intervening in different ways to combat the disease locally, and to prevent it from spreading any further.
A mysterious illness
Ebola is transferred to humans through contact with wild animals, such as monkeys, bats or pigs. Despite extensive research, the exact source of Ebola remains a mystery. Currently, the medical world is looking into the possibility of the disease being carried by fruit flies.
Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids. When infected bodily fluids come into contact with damaged skin or mucosa of another person, the disease can quickly spread. Typical symptoms are fever, weakness, headache and a sore throat. Later on, the patient may begin to vomit, have diarrhea, rashes, failing kidneys and a failing liver. In some cases, there are internal and external bleedings.
The regions of Western Africa affected by the disease
There is currently no vaccine against Ebola. Patients receive extra fluids and minerals, such as salt and sugar, to strengthen them while their body fights off the disease. The mortality rate for Ebola is very high; sometimes as high as 90 percent.
A possible treatment is the experimental vaccine currently being used to treat two American doctors. However, the use of this vaccine is controversial. WHO will convene a panel discussion next week to discuss the ethical consequences of the experimental treatment. Can a vaccine which has never thoroughly been tested on humans be used? And if so, who would receive the treatment?
Prevention can save lives
A thorough prevention campaign is essential in the fight against Ebola. It is crucial to inform the local population about the do’s and don’ts when brought in contact with the disease. Health workers often do this through information gatherings at markets or door-to-door visits - an important tool in an area with high illiteracy rates.
Another tool in the prevention campaign is the media. In Guinea, the capital Conakry and the countryside are full of radio- and television messages in French and in local languages. This way of communicating is often hindered by bad connections in rural areas and by the fact that many of the poorer population often do not own their own radio or television.
Because of the great risk of infection, all contact with infected animals, raw meat or blood has to be avoided. When a person is infected, physical contact is out of the question. One reason why the disease is spreading so rapidly is because many people take care of the sick at home without the necessary protective clothing or hygiene.
The burial culture in the region also plays a significant role. In some cultures, it is a tradition to touch the deceased before he or she is buried, a practice strongly discouraged by Ebola-specialist. Family members even hide their deceased from the authorities, causing new infections in the close family.
Everyday, new cases of Ebola are registered. Fadela Chaïb, WHO spokesperson, declared that the infection count on the 4th of August was as high as 1.711, of which 932 have already died.
Health workers informing the population in a local marketplace
Besides the support of local doctors and sections of the Red Cross, the affected regions also receive international aid to combat the epidemic. Doctors sent by the World Health Organization cooperate with other organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders. They have a great expertise on the issue since they have been involved with fighting Ebola-outbreaks over the past 15 years. Recent infections of several doctors and hospital staff, however, have shown that the treatment of patients is not entirely without risk.
“There is a great need of more personnel and material,” emphasized Gregory Hartl of the WHO in a recent interview. “We need the aid of everyone who can give it, we need the help now and we need a lot of it.” Besides creating a 100 million dollar plan to combat Ebola, the General Director of the WHO, Margaret Chan, has created a disaster plan with the political leaders of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, to make sure that residents of the affected regions are urged not to leave their area of residence. This will combat the spread of the disease.
An emergency committee of the WHO is convening this week to discuss the question of whether or not the Ebola outbreak should be treated as a threat to international public health. If this is necessary, measures will have to be taken to prevent the global spread of the virus.
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