Here’s the Low-Down on West Africa’s ‘Out of Control’ Ebola Crisis

The deadliest outbreak of Ebola virus in one of history’s worst outbreaks on record, has sparked fears that the killer virus could spread from west Africa to other regions and continents.

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While it seems like there’s no rhyme or reason to its path, one thing is clear: nothing can stop it.

“This epidemic is without precedent,” said Bart Janssens, director of operations for Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders. “It’s absolutely not under control, and the situation keeps worsening… There are many places where people are infected, but we don’t know about it.”

The outbreak began with just a handful of cases in Guinea in March. Since then, there have been 814 confirmed cases and another 387 probable or suspected across that country, Sierra Leone and Liberia, according to the World Health Organization.

Some 672 people of the 1,201 total confirmed and possible infections have died, which equates to a 55% mortality rate, reports WHO as of July 23. (There have been 456 confirmed deaths due to Ebola.)

The fast-acting Ebola virus, which first appeared in 1976, produces a violent hemorrhagic fever that leads to internal and external bleeding. The infection is transmitted by direct contact with blood, bodily fluids, and tissues of infected people or animals.

Though there is no vaccine and no specific treatment for Ebola.

How does a person contract Ebola?

They usually acquire it from close contact with blood and body fluids, and that means someone coughs in your face, you handle a body or you look after someone and don’t have ideal infection-control methods. You get the virus on your hands, you touch your nose, your mouth.

What symptoms do Ebola patients show?

Symptoms include fever, chills, headache, anorexia and muscle pains. Eventually, people with the virus experience nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and diarrhea, followed by internal bleeding in the digestive tract, lungs and gums.

“It looks like the flu: fever, headache, sore throat, muscle aches and pains. That’s in the first few days. And then vomiting, diarrhea and the really serious part of the illness — that is the hemorrhage part — really doesn’t occur until toward the end of the first week.”

Why has this outbreak been so bad?

“First, there’s a lot of cross-border travel. Whereas most other outbreaks have been isolated in the middle of virtually nowhere. Also, people in these countries don’t trust the government. They don’t believe in the infection. They hide their cases. If someone dies, they take [the body] home. And unfortunately the funeral procedures where you touch the body, and handle the body, markedly increases your risk. These cases are now more in central areas, cities rather than tiny villages. All of those reasons I think have compounded to make this a much greater outbreak.”

Doctors Without Borders has described the outbreak as “out of control,” begging for more aid and support. In one week, 50 new cases were reported, and the numbers continue to grow.

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The situation has gotten so intense now in West Africa that the Liberia government has vowed to prosecute anyone found harboring Ebola patients.

But really, do they have any other choice when it’s already claimed so many lives?

How easily could Ebola spread outside Africa?

Serious viruses such as Ebola may be just “a plane ride away” from reaching the developed world, according to Marty Cetron of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Mindful of this, Nigeria-based airline companies ASKY and Arik Air suspended operations at the end of July into Monrovia and Freetown, the capitals of Liberia and Sierra Leone, respectively. ASKY said passengers departing from Conakry, Guinea, would be screened for signs of the virus.

Cetron says it is unlikely the virus would spread on an airplane unless a passenger were to come into contact with a sick person’s bodily fluids.

Stressing the key role that those working at airports play in keeping Ebola in check, the CDC spokesman said:

“Being educated, knowing the symptoms, recognizing what to do, having a response to protocol, knowing who to call — those are really, really important parts of the global containment strategies to deal with threats like this.”