Ebola. Oh wait, I forgot to give a trigger warning first. The media’s portrayal of the threat of the Ebola outbreak is one that is alarming, confusing and leading to widespread hysteria around the world. Despite efforts made domestically and internationally to educate and inform populations about the Ebola virus, there are persistent rumors and superstitions spreading about viral transmission, treatment options and risk management.
As an unaware citizen myself, I became interested in the discussions surrounding the Ebola outbreak. Following the trending hashtag of #Ebola, I saw many informative articles from World Health Organization (WHO), Center for Disease Control (CDC), National Public Radio (NPR) Health, and Harvard School of Public Health as well as many ignorant or paranoid comments by tweens about the disease.
I was hoping to help explain some key concepts about Ebola in laymans terms.
According to the WHO the Ebola virus disease – previously known as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever – is a virulent, particularly nasty viral illness that historically has fatality rate of 90 percent. This disease is still relatively new, and the first few cases were pinpointed back to two outbreaks in 1976 in Nzara, Sudan and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. From what researchers have gathered, the disease is believed to be originated from wild bats in the rainforest which may have passed the disease to human hosts.
Despite misconceptions, this fatal virus is not an airborne disease nor is it transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of infected people who are symptomatic. According to the CDC, a person is not contagious from the moment that they are exposed to the virus. These people who have come into contact with the virus and are asymptomatic will not transmit the disease through coughing, sneezing or even crying on you. Throughout the world, people are worried that they may have come in contact with the disease while at an airport or on a plane. However, this is unlikely since most of the victims of this illness are too weak to travel and no evidence has proven this virus to be airborne.
The WHO’s factsheet on Ebola describes it as “a severe acute viral illness often characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.” It is difficult to diagnose Ebola because these symptoms are similar to many diseases that are sadly common in the Western and Eastern African regions, like malaria, cholera, typhoid fever, meningitis, hepatitis and more. The incubation period (the time before the symptoms can begin to manifest themselves) can be anywhere from two days to three weeks.
In terms of reducing human-to-human infection, WHO states, “in the absence of effective treatment and a human vaccine, raising awareness of the risk factors for Ebola infection and the protective measures individuals can take is the only way to reduce human infection and death.”
Prior to the experimental use of a drug treatment (zMAPP) on the two American mission workers in Liberia who were infected this summer with Ebola, there was said to be no cure or vaccine for Ebola. There are many drugs that are being tested in pharmaceutical facilities that were in their early stages of development and would otherwise not be allowed for human trials. However, due to the severity of the disease and accelerated incidence rates a panel of bioethical experts at WHO have allowed for the use of experimental treatment procedures on infected persons.
An interesting question that many people are asking is: why is it that there is suddenly “new, experimental treatment” available for two American missionaries, even though there have been an estimated 1,800 infected persons in Africa and 1,200 deaths for months prior to this July? While I may not have an answer to this question, it does raise an important point about the idea of privilege and access to healthcare for Westerners. There are many parallels between the reactions of people to the outbreak of Ebola and the first outbreak of HIV/AIDS. It will be interesting to see how healthcare systems and the world react to this epidemic as well. Being informed, doing your due diligence to check your facts and keeping an open mind is important to make sure we do not make the same mistakes that we did with HIV/AIDS by treating those infected like pariahs and discriminating in healthcare.