Deadly contagious disease epidemics have been featured in movies and books, but they are real. A deadly Ebola virus outbreak is currently spreading in parts of Africa. Ebola outbreaks in the past have had extremely high fatality rates.
There have been 80 cases, and at least 59 deaths, of a hemorrhagic fever in the West African nation of Guinea in the past month. Health officials have confirmed that Ebola, which the World Health Organization has identified as one of the most virulent diseases today, has been found in virus samples taken from the stricken in Guinea. The area affected is in the southern portion of the country; the capital, Conakry, and reportedly across the border into Sierra Leone.
Ebola and similar hemorrhagic viruses initials create fever, weakness, muscle pain, sore throat and other symptoms common to severe flus, malaria and other illnesses. Then, the patient begins vomiting, having diarrhea, a possible rash and often bleeding both internally and externally. The virus has an incubation period that has varied from two to 21 days.
The first Ebola outbreaks were in 1976 and killed more than two-thirds of the approximately 600 people stricken. One in the Democratic Republic of Congo was near the Ebola River, hence the name. Since then, five different species of the Ebola virus have been identified, four of which have been identified in spreading deadly outbreaks.
Ebola has been introduced to humans through the bodily fluids or organs of infected animals, such as chimpanzees, gorillas and fruit bats. Once it has spread to humans, though, it is transmitted rapidly from human to human also through blood, bodily fluids or direct contact with a person or cadaver infected with Ebola. Like plagues of old in Europe, avoiding contact and isolation are the key to containment.
In the initial Ebola outbreaks, many health care workers were infected too. Now, workers tending to patients use strict infection control precautions, such as hazmat suits, gloves, masks and goggles. In addition, the WHO and other international health care organizations, like Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders), respond quickly to address and quell suspected outbreaks.
In the latest outbreak, Medecins Sans Frontieres has reinforced its personnel in Guinea and flown in 33 tons of medicines and equipment. Isolation areas are being set up in the affected communities. WHO is also sending officials this weekend to conduct additional tests on site.
Two other deadly viruses that have plagued Africa in the past are Marburg Hemorrhagic Fever and Lassa Fever. They were initially suspected in the current outbreak because of similar symptoms. Marburg is a filoviral disease similar to Ebola and believed to have originated in fruit bats. Of the three viruses, Marburg is the only one known to have an outbreak outside of Africa. (It was named for Marburg, Germany, where are outbreak took place in 1967.) Lassa is an arenaviral disease, like meningitis and encephalitis, believed to come from rodent urine or feces. However, Ebola is considered to be the most deadly, and world health officials are determined to keep the current outbreak from spreading.
By Dyanne Weiss