Since the first cases of Ebola in the 1970s, the outbreaks have been contained. However, as of July 10, 2014, according to World Health Organization (WHO), this latest outbreak has already killed 539 people with 888 cases reported.
The official statement of the organization on the Ebola epidemic trend revealed, “Liberia and Sierra Leone remains precarious with high numbers of new cases and deaths being reported. The current active foci of the EVD [Ebola Virus Disease] outbreak have been identified as Kailahun and Kenema in Sierra Leone and Lofa and Montserrado in Liberia.” (2)
The first Ebola cases were reported in March 2014 and seemed to be contained by April 2014. Instead of maintaining containment protocol, the president of Guinea declared that the outbreak was under control and relaxed the stringent containment measures. The appearance that the infection rate had slowed was deceptive and a second wave of infection broke out. (3)
How Ebola Is Spread
Periodic outbreaks that have occurred over the past three decades are attributed to fruit bats. The bats are carriers, meaning they are not affected by the virus. It’s believed that the droppings from bats onto bananas that are then eaten by monkeys spread the virus. Monkeys are part of the diet of many Africans. It’s not unusual for hunters to find dead monkeys and eat them, not realizing the animal primate died from Ebola.
Ebola is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids. The symptoms include headache and fever followed by vomiting and diarrhea then internal and external hemorrhaging. There is no cure or treatment and the death rate is over 90% of those infected. (4)
Over the past 38 years, the medical community has developed a successful protocol of tracing patients’ contacts and isolating those people. This practice has always resulted in containing the virus.
This latest Ebola outbreak wasn’t contained due to several factors. The first part of containment needed the support of a public-health infrastructure. This was weak and in some cases non-existent.
The next part required fast-response by the local authorities. Again, this was inadequate and slow. The third component needed in order to have a successful containment was the support of local governments in developing and maintaining public awareness of the virus. Not being able to educate the public to the symptoms and how the virus is transmitted gave the disease a perfect scenario for spreading.
In addition to the government failure to contain the virus, the general public masked and hid infected family members. There’s also a social stigma for those infected. This prevents them from seeking medical attention and prevents medical teams from tracking down patients and those they came in contact with.
In many instances, families that are stricken by the virus take flight in an effort to escape the disease and the humiliation of being singled out.
Fear of what government officials or medical officials are doing with the infected has created suspicions and rumors of all types of experimentation and even sadistic rituals on the victims.
Since the death rate is so high, the public misconstrue going to the hospital as a “death sentence”.
These reactions have aided the virus in spreading faster than normal. In addition, people are banding together and refusing medical assistance
Such rampant ignorance was seen in April when an angry mob in Guinea attacked a DWB clinic, claiming that the doctors brought the Ebola virus to their town.
This reaction to the deadliest outbreak of Ebola has spread like the virus with other towns refusing to allow medical teams entry by putting up road blocks and attacking arriving medical teams. In one case reported, the townspeople destroyed the bridge leading into the town.
Other complications have arisen over the disposal of the victims’ bodies. Families have refused to turn over deceased relatives and proceeded to wash the corpses in funeral preparations, which spread the disease to all involved.
Some families have attempted to reclaim the bodies of deceased family members in order to bury. When their requests were denied, they became outraged, not understanding why they couldn’t proceed with their religious burial.
Reuters reported that police in eastern Sierra Leone were forced to use tear gas in order to prevent relatives from attempting to recover the bodies of Ebola victims. All of these contagion risks necessitated that a secure disposal protocol for the dead be put in place.
A Distrustful Public
In Guinea, a different scenario is unfolding at the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). The emergency coordinator told Reuters that the north Guinea treatment center in Telimele had a recovery rate of over 75% thanks to the cooperation of the public. Those infected were reporting to the clinic during the early stages of the virus and received medical care that resulted in a lower mortality rate. (5)
Kenema, the third largest city in Sierra Leone, has taken action with the police and health authorities setting up checkpoints along the roads going in and out of the city. Travelers are questioned and their temperatures are taken to check for fevers.
Unfortunately, the distrust of the majority of the public makes it extremely difficult to contain the virus and educate families about the virus. With families hiding their sick, escaping the town and fleeing into the forests, blocking medical teams from entering their villages and towns, the process of containing the virus is monumental.
In the meantime, more and more people are infected and it’s impossible for WHO or the DWB to ascertain just how many people are ill and how many have died and been buried by their families.
In a desperate move to contain the virus and prevent it from spreading, WHO called for greater cooperation of governments and the public.
Whether or not public superstitions, fears and distrust can be overcome and containment achieved remain to be seen.