Humanitarian News Briefs: The Ebola Virus

The Ebola Virus

The deadly Ebola virus that has been terrorizing Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia since the epidemic began in March has most recently been reported in Nigeria. The current outbreak has so far infected 1,600 people and killed more than 880 people in West Africa, making it the deadliest outbreak in the disease’s history – between the discovery of the Ebola virus in 1976 and the current outbreak, only 2,300 infections had been recorded. The virus, which attacks the immune system upon entering the host’s body, leaves patients with flu-like symptoms and uncontrollable bleeding. With no vaccine, and no cure, the primary treatment offered to patients is termed “supportive care” and consists of fluids, pain relief, and the management of clotting problems. According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), one of only two NGOs currently operating in the region working to quell the epidemic, the main way that the virus has been spreading in the West African region is at funerals. MSF notes that when one person dies, people from all over will come and practice their bereavement rituals including touching and kissing the unembalmed body without washing their hands after. Now that one case of the virus has spread from the three original countries to Lagos, Nigeria, there is growing concern by Western governments that the epidemic could spread out of Africa. In late July two Americans working in Liberia contracted the infection, further prompting concern about the disease’s potential to spread to countries in Europe, and the United States.

Dr. Kent Brantly, one of the two Americans infected with the virus, arrived at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on August 2nd. Nancy Writebol, the other American infected, arrived Tuesday, August 5th. The Director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Thomas Frieden, appeared on CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday saying that it is unlikely that Ebola will spread in America.

Further addressing these concerns is the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs’ Helen Hamlyn Senior Fellow, Dr. Alexander van Tulleken. In a London Telegraph article, Dr. van Tulleken explains that Ebola has a few main problems as a virus: “it kills its victims too quickly and infected people are extremely symptomatic… it’s actually not that contagious. Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian man who brought Ebola to Lagos, doesn’t seem to have infected anyone else – despite being extremely unwell on a crowded plane.” Dr. Peter Piot, co-discoverer of the disease and the Director of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, says, “Spreading in the population here, I’m not that worried about it. I wouldn’t be worried to sit next to someone with Ebola virus on the Tube as long as they didn’t vomit on you or something.” In interviews with CNN, BBC World Service, Al Jazeera, and MSNBC, Dr. van Tulleken says it is important that no one in the West panic about this disease, “this isn’t a disease that’s coming to New York or London.” It is possible that there could be a case of the virus in a city like New York or London but, “our public health systems are so much better than Sierra Leone, Guinea, or Liberia that we are dealing with a totally different phenomenon here.” Dr. van Tulleken argues that although we should not worry about an Ebola epidemic spreading to the West, we should care about the disease, first and foremost for humanitarian reasons, “but also for reasons of self-interest.” To support his argument, Dr. van Tulleken emphasizes that, “The epidemic disease is a threat which desperately needs attention, and this epidemic is revealing weaknesses in the ability of the international system to respond.” In the largest Ebola epidemic ever, there are only two NGOs, MSF and Samaritan’s Purse who are currently responding in the West African region. According to MSF, they need twice as many people to respond to the rapidly growing epidemic: “We simply don’t have the numbers to delegate all the things that have to be done when we’re in the isolation ward…We would like to keep a visit between 45 minutes and one hour, but now, we’re stretching it to almost two hours. We put ourselves through a very strong psychological stress when we’re in personal protection gear, because it’s impermeable.” In Monrovia, Liberia the overcrowded and understaffed Elwa Hospital has had to turn away patients this week, in part because of the withdrawal of some international staff following the infection of Dr. Brantly and Ms. Writebol. Dr. van Tulleken sees the Ebola outbreak as an opportunity to “improve our regional and international co-ordination of epidemic control and the capacity of NGOs and UN agencies” because “this Ebola epidemic isn’t going to come to Europe but its spread and death toll is a warning that we aren’t prepared for diseases that could.”

 Updated 8/5/14

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