Ebola: The 2014 Outbreak Explained

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When it comes to Ebola, the first thing you need to know is that dying from the virus

When it comes to Ebola, the first thing you need to know is that dying from the virus

is like something out of a horror movie--extremely painful and terrifying. First, you get a fever;

then uncontrollable diarrhea; then you begin hemorrhaging blood; and while all that’s

hitting you, you lose touch with reality and become delirious.

Finally, within days, you are dead.

West Africa is currently in the midst of by far the worst case of the disease since it

was first discovered in Africa back in 1976. This year’s outbreak has been traced to

a two year old boy who died on December 6th, 2013 in a village in Guinea. He probably got

the virus by eating contaminated food that had been drooled or defecated on by a bat,

or - as is common in this part of the world - had eaten some bat for dinner. Bats, researchers

believe, are the carriers of the disease. As if the two year old’s death wasn’t

tragic enough, a week after it killed him, it killed his mother, his 3-year-old sister,

and then his grandmother.

Now, it’s customary in some African villages to prepare a body for burial through the extremely

sanitary cleansing ritual that involves evacuating the body all food and excreta, often using

just bare hands. Since the disease is spread by bodily fluids getting into the eyes, nose

or mouth, it’s no surprise that two people who travelled to the grandmother’s funeral

caught Ebola and brought it home to their villages. After escaping ground zero, the

highly contagious, undetected virus was off to the races.

By the end of March, Ebola had reached Liberia, and in June, the first case was reported in

Monrovia, Liberia’s capital city. That’s when outbreaks like this really start to spread,

when the infected people make their way to population centers during the incubation phase,

before their symptoms begin. A group of people from Sierra Leone who had travelled to an

Ebola victim’s funeral brought the disease back across the border, and in late July,

the virus had hit Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.

Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are three of the 17 nations that form the Economic Community

of West African States, whose combined territory is roughly half the land area of the United

States, but with a population roughly the same - at 340,000,000 - it’s about twice

as dense as America. And since the disease is easily passed from person to person, and

there are lots of people here, it’s crucial to get outbreaks like this under control as

quickly as possible, especially since a staggering 47% - or 2,984 - of the just over 6,400 people

who have been sickened by this strain of Ebola have died.

So understandably, this is terrifying to neighboring countries, who have responded by shutting

down their borders. Still, Nigeria - the largest country in Africa by population and economic

output - couldn’t keep the disease beyond its borders when an infected Liberian-American

named Patrick Sawyer flew into Nigeria’s largest city and died shortly thereafter.

A Nigerian doctor named Stella Ameyo Adadevoh stopped Sawyer from leaving the hospital,

stopping the spread of Ebola to the 21,000,000 people living in Lagos. Sadly, Dr. Adadevoh

contracted Ebola and died, but she left this world a hero by helping to successfully limit

the outbreak to just 21 cases and 8 deaths in her country. No new cases have been reported

in Nigeria in weeks.

Liberia’s experience, however, has been the exact opposite. The disease is out of

control there. Cases doubled in the three weeks between August 31st and September 22.

As a response, Liberia’s Harvard-educated president - Nobel Peace Prize Winner Ellen

Johnson-Sirleaf (the first female head of state in the history of Africa) - had no choice

but to order a lockdown of a highly-infected slum in the capital. This didn’t last long

though as an angry crowd attacked an Ebola center and freed the infected.

The second hardest-hit country, Sierra Leone, has resorted to an unprecedented, three-day,

nationwide lockdown of its 6 million residents in an effort to halt the disease.

But these countries are fighting an uphill battle. Many parts of West Africa lack even

proper sanitation or drinking water. Too many people are poorly educated, scared, and mistrustful.

To add insult to injury, aid workers keep getting attacked for spreading information

about Ebola or trying to collect the bodies of the disease’s victims. And in September,

an entire team of eight aid workers was murdered by villagers in Guinea.

When American health care workers in Liberia contracted the disease and had to be flown

to the United States for life-saving treatment, the rest of the world was shaken by the possibility

of Ebola spreading outside of Africa’s borders. It was the first time an Ebola-infected person

had stepped foot on American soil.

But it wasn’t the first time someone on western soil had been infected. In 1976, the

year of the first documented Ebola outbreak, a British scientist named Geoffrey Platt,

researching the disease in a lab in England, accidentally stabbed himself with a syringe

containing the virus. As the unmistakable symptoms of Ebola set in over the next few

days, the British government acted swiftly. Platt was transported in a special ambulance

under police escort to a London hospital where he was the lone patient. He was kept in an

isolation chamber and all hospital staff working on his case were quarantined, as was his family

and any lab workers and friends he had come in contact with. The extreme action worked,

Platt recovered without infecting anyone else.

But the current incarnation of Ebola is threatening to overwhelm the much more economically-challenged

West African region. Answering the call to action, the United States military is taking

the lead in overseeing and coordinating the response to the epidemic. In addition to US

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention staff who have been there for weeks,

President Obama has ordered 3,000 American troops to West Africa to build 17, 100-bed

treatment centers and a site capable of training 500 health-care workers a week. The US response

is worth an estimated $750 million over the next 6 months. The Bill and Melinda Gates

Foundation has alone donated $60 million, and the foundation of Paul Allen, Gates’

co-founder of Microsoft, has given nearly $12 million.

The American-led international response may come just in time, as infection levels were

spiking exponentially in the middle of September. If no help had come, some experts were fearing

the disease could have overwhelmed the region and spread until it exhausted its host population,

killing hundreds of thousands or even millions of Africans, all the time increasing the odds

that it could make its way off the continent. The World Health Organization now optimistically

hopes to control Ebola by mid-2015, limiting the death-toll to around 10,000.

Thanks for watching this installment of The Daily Conversation. If you’d like us to

tackle a particular subject in this mini-documentary format, leave your idea in a comment below.

Until next time, I’m Bryce Plank.

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