Thursday, April 3, 2014
Ebola outbreak spreads panic in West Africa
DAKAR, Senegal — The rising death toll in West Africa's Ebola outbreak has sparked fear across the region with at least 80 already having died from the nearly always fatal virus.
"Every day we're reading about it in the newspaper, hearing about it on the radio, and wondering when it's going to come here," said 32-year-old Mossa Bau, who lives in Dakar, Senegal. "Everyone is very scared because, really, it's a dangerous disease and no one has the means to stop it."
The World Health Organization says that as many as 125 people across three countries are now believed to have contracted the highly contagious disease. Senegal shut its border with Guinea, where the outbreak is believed to have originated, in the hopes of keeping the disease from spreading its way.
The outbreak was initially contained in four remote towns in south Guinea and health officials had hopes it could be contained there. But the country's Ministry of Health confirmed last week that eight cases arose in the capital, Conakry.
Conarky has a population of almost 2 million people, many of whom live in slums without proper water or sanitation — creating an opportune breeding ground for the highly contagious virus.
Two people, including one person who died, tested positive for Ebola in neighboring Liberia. The Ministry of Health there says at least six more people are suspected of contracting the virus, five of whom died. Health officials are also investigating whether five people died from the virus in Sierra Leone.
Senegal is north of Guinea and home to a large population of Guineans who frequently travel back and forth to their home country. Health officials in Liberia say that the first suspected cases of Ebola in Liberia came from someone who returned from a trip to Guinea.
"We just keep hoping it won't do any harm here in our country," said Becaye Fall, in Dakar. "The government says it has taken all the necessary measures to keep people in good health, but I'm still worried."
Ebola is one of the most contagious viral diseases known. It is spread through bodily fluids, such as the sweat, blood or saliva, of an infected person or animal. One can get it through sex as well.
There is no vaccine against it and there is no known cure. Up to 90% of people who contract Ebola die. Bats are believed to be a natural carrier of the Ebola virus, but it is also found in primates and bush meat, such as antelope.
The first symptom is a high fever followed by vomiting, diarrhea and body aches. Some people will bleed through the eyes, ears and nose.
This is the first time an Ebola outbreak has occurred in West Africa. Countries in central Africa, such as Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the virus is endemic, typically see outbreaks every two to three years.
Health workers have been working to identify and treat suspected cases as well as warn people what to look for in a suspected case and how to avoid infection.
"What we have been doing is giving people the right information," said Roland Berehoudougou, the regional director of Disaster Risk Management for the humanitarian organization Plan International.
"People are really panicked about what is happening there, so providing information about how they can protect themselves is key."
Large quantities of medical supplies have been flown into Guinea, and health workers have been given protective gear. Ester Sterk, a doctor and tropical disease specialist for the international medical organization Doctors Without Borders, said the only way to stop the outbreak is to stop the virus from being passed on.
"It's very important that sick patients be isolated and receive treatment in isolation wards, and also if there are people that have been in contact with patients when they were sick, they need to be closely followed during the period of incubation (which lasts between two and 21 days)," she said. "This is to cut the so-called transmission chain."
The World Health Organization says an Ebola outbreak cannot be declared over until no new cases have been reported for at least 21 days after the last patient shows any symptoms. Berehoudougou said the most important thing now is for people remain calm.
"Yes, there is a risk that it could spread further," he said. "But mitigation measures are in place and the health authorities in the country ... are doing their best to contain it and to prevent it from becoming widespread."