The Ebola epidemic has killed more people in seven months than all other Ebola outbreaks in almost 40 years. The World Health Organisation and the United Nations are no longer downplaying projections. The rate of new cases keeps rising and the virus is gaining ground. This year’s outbreak comes from the most dangerous strain.
The Zaire strain was identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo as it was known in 1976. There are five Ebola strains, all but one originating in Africa. A person infected with it is not contagious during the incubation period, but that can vary between two and 21 days. Once the symptoms come out, it’s virulently contagious — spread by contact with the patient’s bodily fluids: saliva, sweat, feces or semen.
The people most at risk are family members and medical personnel. And although professional care practitioners take a series of precautions, they aren’t failsafe. Ordinary people caring for their own are perilously exposed and practically unprotectable, notably mothers with sick children. The greatest challenge for the health authorities remains rapid propagation.
A Liberian doctor said: “The patients already in isolation will not remain under lock and key in their units and so they die. Some of them are strong enough to run, so they will leave their units to go home because they have to eat, and they will go back home and infect their community members, so we’ll see more infections on the street.”
Fernando Fernandes, a doctor in the field with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), said: “We need to make sure that we can isolate enough cases to avoid more people than those that are infected getting the infection. That will be the point that we can break the epidemic and at that time we will be able to control it, but we are not there yet.”
From 1976 to 2012, various outbreaks killed a total of just under 1,600 people. The number of cases declared in the current epidemic is some 9,000, of which some four and a half thousand have died. Five to seven out of every ten cases ends in death.
The spread is accelerating. Approximately there have been 1,000 cases developing per week. In the next two months that is expected to rise to as many as 10,000 new cases per week.
If the epidemic continues to rage in Africa, how to prevent contagion on the other continents — and pay for it? The human and material costs for Europe and the United States, for example, are alarming considering aspects such as screening procedures, quarantine and the strain on medical resources — even keeping clean.