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Spread of Ebola in West Africa Leads to Drastic Measures

55Right now, the small African country of Sierra Leone is in the midst of a 3 day lockdown. The drastic measure, which requires all 6 million citizens to remain at home, is the latest attempt to stop a devastating Ebola epidemic in the region.

Also known as the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), Ebola is a “severe, often fatal illness in humans”. In fact, it “can kill up to 90%” of those infected. Symptoms of the disease include fever, sore throat, muscle pain, and headaches. This is often followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and bleeding (both internal and external), leading to organ failure and death.

The first EVD outbreaks occurred in 1976 in remote villages in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter occurred near the Ebola River, giving the disease its name. Researchers believe that infected animals, likely fruit bats, transferred the disease to chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, antelope, porcupines, and humans directly. Infected humans then spread Ebola to others through bodily fluids, often during their treatment, embalming, or burial.

Since then, the 2014 West African Ebola epidemic has become the “largest and most complex”. In fact, with over 2630 dead, the outbreak has killed more individuals than all previous outbreaks combined. It has also spread to multiple countries. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are the hardest hit, each with over 900 cases.

Unfortunately, many experts are skeptical that the government lockdown will have the desired impact. They argue that volunteers, who are travelling door to door providing soap and education, will struggle to identify Ebola cases. After all, Ebola has a lengthy incubation period (2 – 21 days) and “many of the early symptoms are the same as ordinary illnesses like malaria or food poisoning”. Furthermore, when volunteers do identify a case, “there will not be enough Ebola management centers to care for them.” Having recently emerged from “long periods of conflict and instability”, Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia all suffer from “weak health system, lacking human and infrastructure resources”.

Some experts even maintain that the lockdown could exacerbate the crisis in West Africa. According to Doctors Without Borders, “Forced quarantines and lockdowns are driving people underground and jeopardizing the trust between people and health providers”. The public may even turn on the volunteers, fearing that they will spread the disease. Last week, for example, residents of a remote Guinea village attacked and killed 8 delegates trying to raise awareness of Ebola. Similarly, an attempted lockdown of a neighbourhood in Monrovia, Liberia triggered violent riots.

On a positive note, several countries and international organizations are taking further actions. The World Organization is “on the ground establishing Ebola treatment centres and strengthening capacity for laboratory testing, contact tracing, social mobilization, safe burials, and non-Ebola health care”. Doctors Without Borders has 5 treatment centers in the region, staffed by over 1860 workers. Canada has promised to donate 800 to 1,000 doses of an experimental Ebola vaccine. And just days ago, the United States agreed to send up to 3,000 US military personnel to Liberia to “battle the Ebola virus”.

So how can you help? Please consider donating to Doctors Without Borders, Direct Relief, or Op4G partner Develop Africa, which is providing personal protective equipment to healthcare workers fighting Ebola.

Flickr photo credit: NIAID