By Evan Rogers
As Ebola panic strikes the nation and rumors fly like fall leaves on the wind, it’s important to be informed on what’s actually going on. In that spirit, this article has been written to get readers up to speed on the background and effects of this disease.
First identified near the Ebola River in Zaire (now in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Sudan in 1976, the disease we know as Ebola is actually a hemorrhagic fever that can result from five separate viruses, four of which can be transmitted to humans. Its origin cannot be confirmed beyond a doubt, but experts believe it likely was transmitted from bats in Central Africa to a single human host, and from there began to infect others. Studies show that since the initial animal to human transmission, almost all known infections have been a result of human to human contact rather than between animals and humans.
Though it is extremely infectious, due to the fact that even a small amount of exposure to the disease can have fatal consequences, according to CNN Ebola is only moderately contagious. While the most contagious diseases are airborne, Ebola can only be contracted through contact with an infected person or animal’s bodily fluids. Symptoms usually start to show 8-10 days after the disease is transmitted but can take as long as 21 days to surface. The most common of these symptoms are fever, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, unexplained bleeding, and stomach pain. As these symptoms gain severity, they often become fatal.
According to NBC, the strain of Ebola that is ravaging West Africa right now likely came from a single contaminated public water source in Guinea; those using this reservoir then spread the disease to others they came into contact with, and it was eventually introduced into other West African countries. In Sierra Leone, the outbreak began with a single healer who crossed into Guinea to help the infected there only to contract Ebola herself. It was at her funeral and burial that several others were infected with the disease. It has continued to spread across Western Africa and cases are beginning to be reported in North America and Europe.
Thus far, there are 3,000 known cases of Ebola in West Africa, and over 1500 of these cases were fatal. This puts mortality rates at roughly 50 percent, and this is only among those cases that have been reported to West African doctors. To put this in perspective, the Black Death pandemic that eliminated over half of Europe’s population in the middle of the fourteenth century had a mortality rate of 72 percent without any modern medicines or antibiotics to treat it. Though treatment options in a country like Guinea are by no means the most advanced the modern world has to offer, its people undeniably have greater access to medicine than medieval serfs did.
The fact that the death rates of the two diseases are so similar is therefore deeply concerning. The World Health Organization estimates that as many as 20,000 people could be infected before the outbreak is able to be stopped. Based on the current mortality rate, that would mean 10,000 deaths in West Africa alone.
Outside of West Africa, there are as of yet only 17 known cases of this strain of Ebola, according to the New York Times. Of the eight cases in the U.S., three patients have recovered completely, four, including two hospital workers in Dallas are still in care, and one has died. Two additional deaths in Madrid and one in Leipzig are the only other confirmed deaths in the Western world, a figure that suggests easier access to medicine and antibiotics is a potent defense against the disease. Not only is the outbreak much better contained, but the morality rate- 23 percent- is less than half of what it is in West Africa.
A confirmed cure has yet to be developed, but researchers are well on their way to creating one. A drug called ZMapp was used on two patients in Atlanta who have since made full recoveries, but more of the drug needs to by synthesized in order for clinical trials to take place. Another drug, called TKM-Ebola, showed promise when it was used to treat a patient in Nebraska and has been put on the fast-track for testing by the FDA.
Two vaccines are also being developed in North America; one started human trials in September and the other has been approved to begin testing in the near future. Despite optimism over cure efforts, leading experts say that they will be too late to help victims of the current outbreak, and the CDC has predicted that as many as 1.4 million people may be infected by the time the outbreak ends.
The disease’s ability to mutate further complicates attempts to develop a cure. Virologist Robert Garry of Tulane University says, “The longer this virus is allowed to propagate human to human, the more it is going to adapt.” It is unclear exactly how the virus may mutate, but experts believe it to be likely. There is a light at the end of this tunnel, but we have a long and winding path to tread.