An outbreak of the terrifying Ebola virus emerged in the West African nation of Guinea in February and has been spreading ever since, infecting people in Sierra Leonne and Liberia as well. It is now the biggest and deadliest outbreak of Ebola since the virus was identified in 1976.
The disease’s spread seemed to slow down for a while, but has picked up in recent weeks. An estimated 528 people have been infected, and 337 have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. While it’s likely that many cases go uncounted, the Associated Press notes that previously, the largest reported death toll was in the Congo in 1976, when 280 people died. (The most widespread outbreak infected 425 people in Uganda in 2000, killing 224.)
“The epidemic is now in a second wave,” Bart Janssens, the director of operations for Doctors Without Borders told the Associated Press. “It is totally out of control.”
The World Health Organisation has planned a meeting between the three countries affected by this latest outbreak for June 23.
“There needs to be a real political commitment that this is a very big emergency,” Janssens added. “Otherwise, it will continue to spread, and for sure it will spread to more countries.”
This outbreak is unique because it has struck densely populated areas like Monrovia, the capital city of Liberia, and Conakry, the capital city of Guinea. Ebola usually emerges in sparsely populated rural regions, where fewer people pass through.
In an interview with NBC News, Robert Garry, a microbiology professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine, warned that the outbreak so far is just “the tip of the iceberg.”
Ebola begins as fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat, but soon progresses to vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, and impaired organ function. A large proportion of those infected also bleed profusely, both internally and externally. It’s considered highly contagious, though it isn’t transmitted through the air — instead it’s spread by bodily fluids like blood and saliva which can be very hard to avoid when someone is bleeding heavily from every orifice.
Ebola first emerged in humans in 1976, and there have been more than 18 outbreaks since then. There is currently no vaccine and no cure.
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