Ebola Epidemic Began with One Toddler


The start has been traced to a two-year-old boy who became sick last December in a remote village. The strange sickness spread rapidly to family members and then others. Now, almost one year after it began with one toddler in Guinea, more than 15,000 people have become ill and nearly 7,000 have died in the worst Ebola epidemic ever that has been controlled in some areas, but runs rampant still in others.

The epidemic began in Guinea with the death of two-year-old Emile Ouamouno, then his sister and mother, others in theirs and neighboring villages. It eventually led to 1,260 dead in that country so far.

The Ouamouno family lived near where the borders of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone all meet. Around the time the World Health Organization (WHO) for involved in March and alerted the world to the outbreak, he illness crept across borders. As of last week, it has killed more than 3,000 in Liberia and about 1,400 in Sierra Leone.

The disease spread rapidly by “transforming tradition into transmission.” In that part of Africa, relatives and friends prepare a body for burial by washing, touching and caressing the dead. Unfortunately, that involved getting in contact with and cleaning away contagious bodily fluids. As a result, one funeral would turn into many more.

In fact, it was one such burial that resulted in Sierra Leone’s upsurge in Ebola cases this summer. A pregnant woman who miscarried was the first person there diagnosed with Ebola, which she contracted from touching the corpse of a well-known healer. The healer had treated patients across the border in Guinea before returning to Sierra Leone and succumbing herself. Health teams in the area have since identified an additional 13 women who caught the virus at the healer’s funeral, which started a chain reaction.

Ultimately, according to the WHO, experts have traced that one healer’s funeral led to 365 Ebola deaths and countless others who ultimately recovered. Five of the dead were health officials, including the country’s physician leading the Sierra Leone fight against the illness.

Nigeria has been a bright spot in the fight against Ebola. Nigeria is seven times as populace as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea combined. The nation also responded quickly and effectively to the initial spread of the disease into its territory. They traced and watched 1,000 people who were suspected of Ebola exposure to contain and control the situation. The fact that only eight people died is evidence that the action was successful.

The outbreak in Nigeria was declared over on Oct. 19. There had been no new patients identified for 42 days (two times the incubation period). Senegal and Mali also contained the disease quickly. (The Democratic Republic of Congo had a separate outbreak this year that recently ended too.)

The United Nations and the World Health Organization (WHO) have been asking member countries for in-kind and financial aid since last Spring. The equipment need has included military air and ground craft to move supplies and people, personal protective equipment (Hazmat suits) and medical supplies, and construction of temporary Ebola treatment centers like the new 100-bed one the Chinese just opened in Liberia.

The shortage of medical personnel is ongoing in spite of increased personnel on the ground from many countries. The need is exacerbated by the fact that so many doctors and nurses treating the stricken have caught the disease (as happened in the U.S.) and many succumbed to the disease. Liberia only had about 60 doctors before the epidemic, many of whom have died leaving the rest demoralized.

While no longer generating headlines and fear in North America, the West African Ebola epidemic, which began with one toddler, is still running strong in three countries. They still need help controlling and dealing with the ill. Ultimately, they will also need more aid after the disease has run its course to deal with the devastated communities and economies for years afterwards.

By Dyanne Weiss

New England Journal of Medicine
World Health Organization
United Nations
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Portland Press Herald

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