Why Ebola is so dangerous

Health workers in isolation ward, southern Guinea (1 April)

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the world’s deadliest to date and the World Health Organization has declared an international health emergency as more than 3,850 people have died of the virus in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria this year.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a viral illness of which the initial symptoms can include a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and a sore throat, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And that is just the beginning: subsequent stages are vomiting, diarrhoea and – in some cases – both internal and external bleeding.

The current outbreak is the deadliest since Ebola was discovered in 1976

The disease infects humans through close contact with infected animals, including chimpanzees, fruit bats and forest antelope.

It then spreads between humans by direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids or organs, or indirectly through contact with contaminated environments. Even funerals of Ebola victims can be a risk, if mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased.

The incubation period can last from two days to three weeks, and diagnosis is difficult. The human disease has so far been mostly limited to Africa, although one strain has cropped up in the Philippines.

Healthcare workers are at risk if they treat patients without taking the right precautions to avoid infection. People are infectious as long as their blood and secretions contain the virus – in some cases, up to seven weeks after they recover.

Where does it strike?

Ebola outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests, says the WHO.

Woman dries bushmeat by the side of the road, Ivory Coast (29 March)Bushmeat – from animals such as bats, antelopes, porcupines and monkeys – is a prized delicacy in much of West Africa but can also be a source of Ebola

It was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 since when it has mostly affected countries further east, such as Uganda and Sudan.

Ebola deaths since 1976

A map showing Ebola outbreaks since 1976

This year’s outbreak is unusual because it started in Guinea, which has never before been affected, and it quickly spread to urban areas.

ebola death toll regional map October 4Figures accurate from 4-6 October, depending on country. Death toll in Liberia includes probable, suspect and confirmed cases, while in Sierra Leone and Guinea only confirmed cases are shown

From Nzerekore, a remote area of south-eastern Guinea, the virus spread to the capital, Conakry, and neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone.

There have been 20 cases of Ebola being imported by someone travelling from a country of widespread transmission to Nigeria, with eight confirmed deaths. The US and Senegal have both confirmed one case each. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said in September that the virus might have been successfully contained in Nigeria and Senegal.

In October, a nurse in Spain became the first person to contract the deadly virus outside of West Africa, after treating two Spanish missionaries who had eventually died of Ebola in Madrid.

 

Ebola deaths in Africa

Up to 8 October

4,032

Deaths -probable, confirmed and suspected

(Does not include one death in US)

  • 2,316 Liberia
  • 778 Guinea
  • 930 Sierra Leone
  • 8 Nigeria
Getty

The medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) says the outbreak is “unprecedented” in the way the cases were scattered in multiple locations across Guinea, hundreds of kilometres apart, and says it is a “race against time” to check people who come into contact with sick people in neighbouring Sierra Leone.

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