The Most Worrying Thing About The West Africa Ebola Outbreak Is It Should Have Been Contained By Now

Screen shot from WHO video clip.

The Ebola virus outbreak which started in West Africa in March should have been brought under control by now, according to an Australian infectious diseases specialist.

Sanjaya Senanayake, associate professor of medicine at ANU, says there appears to be a lot of movement by infected people which has helped spread the killer virus.

“The issue with Ebola is that in the past it normally is horrifically virulent but burns itself out very quickly, because as soon as it is identified people have been able to institute good health measures where the people with the infection, and those close to them, are quarantined and watched,” he says.

“Once the incubation period has passed and the infection has burnt itself out then that’s the end of the outbreak.”

But with this outbreak, that hasn’t happened.

More than 779 cases of Ebola and over 481 deaths have been reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since March, according to the World Health Organisation.

The deadly disease has appeared in cities as well as rural and border areas. Its mortality rate, at 60%, is lower than previous Ebola outbreaks which have killed as much as 90% of people infected.

Canberra-based Dr Senanayake says this is the first time Ebola has appeared in West Africa.

“They haven’t been able to effectively quarantine them for a number of reasons, such as there being a lot of movement across the border, having sick people travelling to big cities to seek help rather than being isolated, and apparently even some resistance to quarantining people in villages,” he says.

“Funeral ceremonies also provide a lot of opportunities for relatives and friends to become infected from a corpse.”

The UK, which will have travellers from Africa during the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, has alerted GPs to be on the lookout for symptoms.

“But it’s hard to know whether to do that here in Australia,” says Dr Senanayake.

“We have a very good public health system both at a state and commonwealth level and they work well together to avert the influx and spread of such infections here.

“But it is very scary and you feel sorry for the people in that part of the world who have to deal with it at the moment.”

In Australia, the federal Health Department says the World Health Organisation considers the risk of international spread of the disease to be low. The WHO does not recommend any restrictions to travel or trade.

A spokeswoman says there is the possibility people returning to or visiting Australia from Guinea and other affected areas of West Africa but the number of movements between Australia and West Africa is relatively small.

“The risk of any local transmission following an imported case is very low,” she says.

Fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family are considered to be the natural host of the Ebola virus which is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals.

People often eat the bats and the virus then spreads through person-to-person transmission via contact with bodily fluids.

The Health Department says the cultural practices which often lead to spread do not exist in Australia, such as close contact with bodies of the deceased during traditional burial ceremonies.

“Any case in Australia would be quarantined and isolated, with world’s best practice infection control measures,” she says.

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