An outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus is attacking Western Africa in a way health workers have never seen.
“It is serious because it’s the first time that we have Ebola outbreaks in three different countries,” said Tarik Jasarevic of the World Health Organization. In Guinea, he is monitoring the outbreak that has spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Since March, there have been 964 reported cases and 603 deaths that he knows of.
“This time around it is very challenging because it’s spread over a very vast geographical area,” Jasarevic said. “So far we have not been able to find all those people who fell sick, and this is why transmission is still continuing.”
Dr. Lance Plyler with Samaritan’s Purse, is in Monrovia, Liberia, where the ministry has set up a treatment center. He said about 60 percent of people who catch the disease die, usually unpleasant deaths.
“Initially the person will classically present with fever, and then they will get huge body aches—particularly in their muscles and their joints,” Plyler said. “That’s rapidly followed by nausea, significant diarrhea, abdominal pain. And then eventually in very advanced stages, probably about 30 to 50 percent, they can bleed really from any core opening in their body.”
Plyler said local customs, especially when caring for the dead, are bringing people in contact with the disease. Ebola is highly contagious and is spread through contact with body fluids.
“It’s very customary and cultural for them in the burial process to touch the corpse or the body,” Plyler said. “They prepare the body through cleansing and curling the hair or shaving the hair.”
Samaritan’s Purse Vice President Ken Isaacs said what’s different about this outbreak is that for the first time, the disease has invaded major cities: “The disease has moved into large, populated areas—the capital city of Conakry, the capital city of Monrovia—each has a population of more than 2 million people.”
The ministry is deeply involved in helping to manage the crisis. It is building a consolidated care center with 40 beds in Monrovia.
Plyler said he can tell within days whether a patient is going to survive the virus.
“It’s devastating to see people die. Alternatively, it’s just incredibly gratifying to see someone come in with confirmed Ebola and receive proper care,” he said. “Without that care, you know they would have succumbed to the disease, and they come out victorious, they overcome Ebola.”
Before the Ebola outbreak can be declared over, World Health Organization officials need to record two periods of 21 days—the virus’ incubation period—without a single case being reported.
Listen to Steve Jordahl’s full report on the Ebola virus on The World and Everything in It: