Guinea is battling to contain an outbreak of Ebola, which currently includes 122 suspected cases and 78 deaths, not all of which are confirmed to be the deadly virus.
Still, “more cases will be confirmed as additional testing is done,” W. Ian Lipkin, MD, the director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, told Business Insider.
The outbreak is causing particular concern, even among those who have been on the front lines of previous outbreaks.
“We are facing an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen in terms of the distribution of cases in the country,” Mariano Lugli, coordinator of MSF’s project in Conakry, told Reuters.
Ebola is usually contained within a small, rural area, but in the Guinea outbreak, it took six weeks to identify the virus. At that point, it had already been found in multiple, far-flung locations within the country. That makes it much more challenging to control.
It has now spread to the country’s capital, Conakry, to neighbouring Liberia, and possibly to Sierra Leone, Reuters reported. Conakry is a port city of 2 million, and residents of West Africa are already terrified. Senegal, another neighbouring country, closed its border to crossings by land.
The symptoms of Ebola often include uncontrollable bleeding, and the deadliest strains of the virus kill up to 90% of people infected. Most outbreaks are successfully contained, but the geographic spread of Ebola in Guinea has some people worried.
The first thing to realise: It’s not that easily spread. Peter Piot, one of the the scientists who discovered the Ebola virus in 1976, has emphasised that it’s not like a highly contagious flu. As he wrote in The Independent:
Fundamentally, Ebola is easy to contain. It’s not a question of needing high technology. It’s about respecting the basics of hygiene, and about isolation, quarantine and protecting yourself — in particular protecting healthcare workers, because they are very exposed.
It’s really “a disease of poverty and neglect of health systems,” he writes. It often spreads when hospital workers or mourners come into contact with bodily fluids like blood and vomit, when hospitals use unsanitized needles, or when people handle or eat the meat of infected animals, like bats.
But part of what makes this Ebola outbreak alarming is that recent outbreaks have been in East Africa, and no one can say why it is suddenly in West Africa.
“This is a virus that is highly unpredictable,” Piot told Reuters. “This time it popped up in Guinea where it has never been detected before. Why there? Why now?”
Nobody can say for sure, but “people and wild animals dont respect geographic boundaries,” Lipkin noted, proposing three potential explanations for the spread into Guinea: “a human was infected elsewhere and traveled to Guinea, infected bushmeat was acquired elsewhere and brought into Guinea, or infected animals moved into Guinea and [were] hunted by humans.”
Ebola’s emergence in East Africa and its spread to Conakry is a cause for serious concern — the virus does not usually “jump” from place to place. But right now there’s not yet reason to fear that it will not be successfully contained, especially with international effort now focused on doing just that. A suspected case of a Canadian who had recently travelled to Liberia turned out to be a false alarm, for example.
At this point, Guinea says it has isolated those infected.
So could Ebola ever travel to the U.S.?
“Anything is possible,” Lipkin told Business Insider. “However, it’s unlikely.”
This post was updated to add information from Dr. Lipkin and from Reuters’ latest report.
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