Ebola. A word that I’ve probably heard more in the last twenty-four hours than in all of my life excluding the last month or so. Ebola is a viral infection that causes fever like symptoms and is often fatal. A virus is not a bacterium; it is in no way similar to bacteria. It is small yes, but it cannot reproduce by itself. It must attach to a host cell and essentially spit its genetic information inside; it can then reproduce inside the cell and will eventually cause its host to lyse. The new viruses can then spread out and infect other cells. A viral infection cannot be treated with antibiotics, it is not a bacteria. So please, stop hosing your kids off with Purell, it’s not helping. Furthermore, it is not at this time believed to be airborne, but is transferred through direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids of those already infected.
Ebola was first documented in 1976, when it infected 284 people, killing 151, in Sudan. It was then seen in the same year in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, (DRC) resulting in a quarantine of the area, and ultimately 318 infections and 280 deaths. A second major outbreak stuck the DRC in 1995 and two more in 2007 and 2012. Uganda faced major outbreaks in 2000 and 2007 and two smaller ones in 2012, and the Republic of Congo saw one in 2003. A major outbreak occurred in March of 2014 in the country of Guinea in Western Africa; it quickly spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia and later to Nigeria and Senegal.
On September 19, Eric Duncan of Liberia flew to Texas. He visited a hospital after feeling ill, but was sent home. On September 30, he was diagnosed with Ebola, and on October 8th he was dead. On October 12, Nina Pham a health care provider in Texas was diagnosed with the virus and a second nurse, Amber Vinson, was diagnosed on the 15. In total, the World Health Organization estimates that of 9,216 documented cases, 4,555 deaths have been reported, although they admit that both of these numbers are likely low. Furthermore, they estimate that 216 of the deaths were those of health care workers.
Let’s put this into perspective. Of the 4,555 people who have died, one of those deaths happened on US soil. Of the 9,216 diagnoses, three have occurred in the US, two being US citizens (not taking into account possible US health care workers abroad). Is this a huge percentage? No, it is tiny. Is it a prob
lem? Well yes, certainly the spread of any disease is concerning. However, we need to keep in mind that medical practices here are much different than in areas affected in Africa, where there are often not enough beds to meet their needs, as well as much less medical supplies and personnel. We also need to remember that, while the disease poses a threat to the US, that threat is very small compared to the threat it continues to pose to Sub-Saharan and Western Africa. So should we be searching for better treatment and possibly preventative measures? Absolutely, but such efforts should have been made long before the disease reached the US. The issue of containment is also touchy. Is it wrong to send someone with Ebola into the US (or across the US) if that will provide him or her with the best possible medical treatment and therefore the best chance at survival? Does the risk of infecting someone else justify not putting in every effort to save someone who is already infected? These are not easy questions, but questions that the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control are faced with and will need to answer sooner, rather than later.