Ebola Virus Outbreak: Background & News

          To those unaware, a deadly Ebola outbreak of historic proportions is ripping its way through West Africa as of this writing. Further history was made last Saturday when an American infected with Ebola virus was flown in an isolation chamber from Liberia to Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital to receive emergency treatment. This represented the first known Ebola patient to ever be treated on U.S. soil, something that has alarmed many Americans. This Tuesday, a second patient is due to arrive to the same hospital for treatment. In this blog, I will briefly outline the latest as it relates to this deadly Ebola outbreak. Additionally, I’ll provide insight as to what Ebola virus is and shed light on its background to help put the current situation in perspective. I am intending to follow and report on this outbreak periodically through a series of blogs. So stay tuned  for updates on the issue.

About Ebola Virus

          Endemic to Africa, Ebola virus disease, as it is technically referred, was first recognized in 1976 in the equatorial region of the continent. Though the reservoir of this virus is not entirely known, it is increasingly thought to reside in non-human primates and bats. Frighteningly, Ebola is about as virulent a disease as we see on this planet, with a case fatality rate of up to 90%. In other words, Ebola kills up to 9 out of 10 people infected, with the least deadly outbreaks still killing over 50% of those infected. To compare, the highest case fatality rates for avian flu are around 60%. The average for West Nile is about 25%. Cholera, though not a virus, kills roughly 0 – 10% of those infected, depending on the country.
          Ebola infection is characterized by sudden onset of fever, extreme weakness and muscle pain, as well as headache and sore throat. Not too dissimilar from the symptoms of common illnesses we’ve all experienced. Later symptoms, however, include diarrhea, vomiting, rash, and impaired function of the kidneys, liver and other organs. In some cases, internal and external bleeding can occur. The current state of knowledge on Ebola transmission is that the virus can be contracted from person-to-person, but that such transmission can only occur through direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person. I will discuss more on this last point and the possibility of airborne transmission in my next blog.

Situation in West Africa

          Outbreaks of Ebola are not very uncommon, however, most outbreaks are usually confined to small villages, fizzle out quickly, and produce no more than 100-200 fatalities. Among the largest Ebola epidemics was the 1995 outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which resulted in 315 cases and 244 deaths. By comparison, the present outbreak has already resulted in 1,603 cases and 877 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. These numbers are staggering to say the least!  Furthermore, since the first cases originated in Guinea around Feb/March, the epidemic has not remained confined, nor has it faded away. Instead, it has crossed borders into neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, and most recently into non-neighboring Nigeria.
          The present issue is certainly raising concern among health and government officials around the world, particularly given the rapidity with which people in the modern day can move from country to country. The incubation period for Ebola can be up to 21 days, meaning an infected person can easily board a flight and travel to another country before ever presenting symptoms of the deadly virus. Additionally, there has been some talk about the possibility that this Ebola virus is of a strain that can be spread via airborne transmission. Were this true, it would of course warrant enormous concern to nations around the world, far surpassing both the SARS and H1N1 scares. Having spent extensive time studying air pollution and the transport mechanisms of airborne particles, I have my own thoughts on this possibility. However, I will reserve this discussion for Part 2 of this Ebola blog series. Note, depending on how often I post on this topic, I may not link all posts through Facebook, so be sure to "join" or tune into the blog directly for updates. In the meantime, let’s send our prayers to the people of West Africa and all others affected by this terrible epidemic. 

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