24 July 2014

West Africa: Ebola 'Out of Control' in West Africa

Photo: Jide Odukoya /Flickr
Lagos, Nigeria

The doctor leading the fight against Ebola in Sierra Leone has himself caught the disease. The epidemic has claimed the lives of more than 600 people in West Africa since the beginning of the year.

Sierra Leone's Health Minister, Miatta Kargbo has hailed Dr Cheik Humar Khan, who contracted Ebola disease while caring for patients, as a national hero. He paid tribute to the sacrifices the physician had made during the current outbreak. Humar Kahn is now being treated at a center run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders. The charity said Sierra Leone has now become an epicenter of the epidemic. It has recorded 454 of the 1,093 Ebola cases registered so far in West Africa.

The epidemic is turning into a disaster for West Africa. In this latest outbreak, the virus was first discovered in this part of the continent at the end 2013. It was first spotted in Guinea and has in the meantime also been found in Sierra Leone and Liberia as well. "The epidemic is out of control," said Bart Janssens, director of operations for the medical charity Doctors Without Borders. "With the large number of suspected cases, there is a real danger that the epidemic could spread to other areas as well"

In Liberia, the Ebola virus has recently spread to four additional districts, raising the total number of affected regions to seven out of the country's 15, said Torbert Nyenswah from the ministry of health in the capital Monrovia.

At least 105 people have died of Ebola in Liberia since March and the death toll for the whole of West Africa in mid-July stood at 603. It continues to climb.

In1976, in what was then Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo), an Ebola epidemic claimed 208 lives. This was when the Ebola virus was first discovered and given its name. Since then Central Africa has experienced smaller outbreaks of the deadly disease. But this current outbreak, which has crossed three national borders, is posing quite a different, more serious challenge to health workers.

Monkey and rat meat off the menu

The governments of the three countries have been trying to prevent the disease from spreading any further. In Guinea, authorities have banned the sale and consumption of wild animals. Monkeys, bats, antelope and rats are a delicacy there, but they are also potential carriers of the virus. People have been travelling to the affected areas from other parts of the country in order to buy the meat of wild animals. Such behavior could encourage the spread of the disease.

Ebola - deadly disease strikes again

Stephan Becker, director of the institute of virology at the University of Marburg, Germany, believes that burial rituals could also be responsible for the spread of the disease. In many African countries, the deceased are normally washed and embraced before they are buried. In this manner, the mourners could easily catch the disease, because the virus is transmitted via contact with blood and other body fluids.

Distrust among the population

Becker's staff have been helping to fight Ebola in West Africa for some months now. As part of their work for the European Mobile Laboratory Project, the German scientists visit villages and carry out tests on the sick and on the recently deceased. The purpose is to prevent new infections and so help curb the epidemic. If someone is infected then he or she should preferably not be treated at home, but at a quarantine facility. An infected corpse has to be buried cautiously, without being touched.

"When carrying out our work, we are aware the population doesn't trust us," said Becker. "People living in villages do not believe in viral diseases, but in evil spirits or curses. They think Western medicine is powerless against such things."

Many people also believe that visiting a person in quarantine is equivalent to signing their own death warrant. 60 percent of people infected with Ebola do not survive. "But at least 40 percent of sufferers can be saved" said Becker. "People can be helped more effectively in intensive care than at home," he explained. Health workers are not only fighting the Ebola virus, but local skepticism as well.

Becker would like to see more Ebola awareness campaigns. He would also like to employ more local staff who would work alongside foreign professionals like himself when testing for Ebola and drawing attention to the risk of infection. He believes an end to the epidemic is not yet in sight. "I assume that the situation will persist for months," he told DW.

Doctors Without Borders has sent 300 Ebola specialists to West Africa. Ebola is among the most infectious diseases in the world. There is no vaccine or specific cure for the disease.

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