RABAT, Morocco (AP) — The Ebola outbreak in three West African countries is already the deadliest to date with 635 cases and 367 fatalities, and is expected to be the longest on record, as some of the poorest countries in the world scramble to confront the fatal disease.
The World Health Organization says there is an “urgent need” to coordinate the response across the borders and is convening a meeting in Accra, Ghana on July 1 with the three countries involved as well as other nations that experienced outbreaks in the past.
There is no cure for the deadly disease caused by the Ebola virus which has an incubation period of two to 21 days and starts with fever and fatigue before descending into headaches, vomiting, violent diarrhea and then multiple organ failure and massive internal bleeding.
Ebola was first reported in 1976 in Congo and is named for the river where it was recognized. The virus can be transmitted through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, or objects that have been contaminated with infected secretions. The American Center for Disease Control says the disease most likely reaches humans from infected wildlife, with fruit bats being the most likely candidate.
Ebola kills more than half of its victims and treatment largely consists of keeping the patient hydrated as the disease runs its course.
Combating Ebola is a matter of stopping its spread by educating people on how to protect themselves and isolating the sick and dead – since corpses are still contagious – and figuring out who the infected had contact with in order to isolate them as well.
The first case of the outbreak was identified in Guinea on March 21 and since then there have been a total of 396 cases with 280 fatalities as it has spread beyond the remote rural areas to the capital city of Conakry. Experts say the outbreak may have begun as far back as January. Ebola typically begins in remote places and it can take several infections before the disease is identified, making a precise start date virtually impossible to pin down.
Education has been the main strategy of fighting the spread and Guinea has used radio and television spots telling people how to stay safe from the disease and urging them to immediately go to hospitals if they are sick.
One of the main goals is to explain to people how to deal with the dead: Washing the corpse of a victim before burial, as is customary, can transmit the disease.
Volunteers, including survivors of the disease have been recruited in the campaign to educate people, which is also targeting community and religious leaders.
With the help of Doctors without Borders, treatment centers have been set up in the outbreak areas and the World Health Organization has worked to boost the capacity of the labs needed to confirm the virus’s presence.
Soon after the outbreak was identified in Guinea, it appeared just across the border in neighboring Liberia on March 30, though since then this small nation has been the least hit with just 63 cases and 41 fatalities.
The Health Ministry has set up treatment centers and started a public service campaign to slow the spread of the disease, including training health professionals to use protective clothing while forbidding hospitals to turn away patients with Ebola symptoms.
They also have forbidden possible victims to be buried without being first tested and issued a death certificate to ensure that there is proper reporting of who has been affected by the disease and who they have been in contact with.
Ebola was identified in Sierra Leone in late May just as it had been hoped the outbreak in Guinea and Liberia was winding down. It has since spread to at least two districts with 176 cases claiming at least 46 lives.
Like the other countries, Sierra Leone formed a national task force with daily meetings and set up treatment centers in the affected areas.
One of the main obstacles to stemming the disease has been combating popular fears which treated the disease as a “demonic” affair. In one recent case in the village of Sadialu, residents burned down the treatment center over fears that the drugs being administered to victims were actually causing the disease.
The Health Ministry has also warned people that sheltering the infected is a crime and lamented that people were escaping from hospitals and hiding.
The local press has also highlighted that for the first month of the outbreak, the government was reporting a substantially lower death toll than the WHO because it was only listing confirmed Ebola fatalities, rather than suspected cases as had been the usual practice.
On Wednesday, WHO announced that it was changing its methodology for reporting Ebola fatalities – just in Sierra Leone – at the government’s request, reducing the death toll by 32.