[Betty Fekade | Contributing Writer]
In December 2013, the world awoke to the news of a deadly new epidemic ravaging the west coast of Africa. Very quickly, the word “Ebola” seemed synonymous with death and the destruction of social order. Panic and lack of public understanding has led to the emergence of misunderstandings about the disease. In this article, I am going to attempt to address some of these misconceptions.
Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever, simply known as Ebola, was named after a river in the Democratic Republic of Congo located 60 miles away from one of the first incidents of the disease back in 1976. The Ebola virus is not a new phenomenon; since its discovery in the 70s there has been more than 30 different outbreaks, including 425 people infected in 2000, and 57 people in 2012.
However, there is a lot of general misinformation about the nature of the virus itself. The Ebola virus is not a single virus but a family or “genus” of five different strains – four of which are known to cause disease in humans. The first incident of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo was caused by one of these strains: the Zaire ebolavirus. This was followed shortly by the Sudan ebolavirus which occurred in the same year in Sudan, as the name suggests. Over the years, there have been cases of Bundibugyo ebolavirus, Tai Forest ebolavirus, and even cases of the harmless (to humans, anyway) Reston virus. These cases have been seen across the globe, though with the majority of cases limited to West Africa.
The Ebola virus is not airborne or waterborne, nor can it be transmitted through casual contact. This means an ebola virus can only be passed on by direct contact between an Ebola-infected bodily fluid, e.g. blood, saliva, mucus, urine or faeces, to the eyes, nose, mouth, open cut, wound or abrasion of a healthy individual – therefore the people who are often infected with the virus are healthcare workers and family members who are trying to care for their already sick relatives. Furthermore, people who are suffering from Ebola can only pass on the disease while they are symptomatic, so it is easily avoidable if the necessary precautions are taken.
Latest and largest outbreak
The current Ebola outbreak is West Africa is caused by the Zaire ebolavirus and is by far the largest outbreak that has ever occurred; however its spread has little to do with the lethality of the virus and rather more to do with the lack of resources faced by those treating it. While it is undoubtedly a dangerous adversary, the spread of Ebola can be stopped by providing adequate hospital services which are generally lacking in these areas. Some of these hospitals are lacking even the basic running water which makes infection control very difficult. While this disease has the capability to cause a large pandemic, it should be used to highlight the lack of basic medical infrastructure that is present in these areas of Africa. Providing basic healthcare is not only vital to the safety of the West African population but to the general human race as a whole.
This outbreak is also a prompt to many medical research units and pharmaceutical companies to invest in better medication towards fighting viral infections. Viruses cannot be treated with antibiotics, which only work against bacteria, and there are no real cures for Ebola. However, many scientists have been working on experimental drugs which have been used to treat some patients already. While these drugs were available for some patients there are not enough resources available to treat all infected patients and many have died without them. Cases like this remind us that there is an advantage to remaining vigilant towards possible pandemics and the need for the expansion of scientific research.
If you are living in the UK and are worried about the possibility of catching Ebola: don’t. While there are isolated cases in North America and Europe, these are highly unlikely to spread past these individuals. The UK is also known for its excellent quality healthcare professionals and medical resources, so if you happen to face the unlikely scenario of catching the virus, they will have you back on your feet quite quickly. This cannot be said for everyone so please be sure to visit.msf.org.uk/ebola and donate to this charity to help save a life from Ebola.