Global health leaders are currently struggling to contain the worst Ebola outbreak that’s ever been recorded, warning that countries need to take “drastic action” to stop the spread of the deadly virus. Ebola has claimed nearly 400 lives in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. That easily surpasses its previous record death toll from 1976, when the virus killed 280 people near the Ebola River, where it gets its name.
Ebola is one of the most dangerous viruses on the planet. There is no cure for it once a person becomes infected, and some strains have a fatality rate of up to 90 percent. Early symptoms can seem somewhat mild, often not much different than the flu. But Ebola quickly progresses and ends up interfering with the body’s ability to mount an immune system defense. It can lead to severe bleeding, multiple organ failure, seizures, and coma.
The disease was first reported in Guinea back in March. It quickly became an “unprecedented epidemic” in the impoverished region, which doesn’t have an adequate health care infrastructure and lacks enough doctors to serve patients. Since then, there’s been a lot of cross-border movement between Guinea and its neighbors, which allowed the lethal disease to spread even further.
“This is no longer a country specific outbreak but a sub-regional crisis that requires firm action by governments and partners,” Luis Sambo, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, said in a statement this week. “WHO is gravely concerned by the on-going cross-border transmission into neighboring countries as well as the potential for further international spread.”
WHO is convening an emergency meeting at the beginning of July with eleven African nations to discuss the best ways to tackle the crisis. The goal is to “develop a comprehensive inter country operational response plan.”
There are several reasons that Ebola continues to spread throughout the region. For one thing, countries have struggled to mount an appropriate response to the outbreak over the past several months. Guinean leaders have downplayed the severity of the outbreak, officials started to relax their efforts to contain the virus when it looked like infections may have been slowing down, and the affected countries don’t have the budgets to launch massive public information campaigns.
Earlier this week, the international charity Doctors Without Borders warned that it’s already exhausted most of its resources trying to combat Ebola. The group said the outbreak is “out of control” and political and religious leaders aren’t taking it seriously enough. Prominent figures need to do more to promote the fight against Ebola, the group’s director of operations told the Guardian, so that key messages get through.
Right now, there’s a widespread lack of information about the virus in the three impacted countries, an issue that’s exacerbated by the fact that some communities there don’t trust health professionals. And as families are burying their dead, they continue to put themselves at risk for contracting the virus themselves through traditional funeral practices, which involve washing the body. Public health experts often have trouble overcoming these type of cultural barriers in order to effectively treat disease outbreaks.
WHO expects the outbreak to last another three to four months, and is treating it as a global health threat. Fortunately for residents on other continents, it’s unlikely that Ebola will be able to spread outside of Africa anytime soon. The major city in the midst of the outbreak, Guinea’s capital, isn’t an international hub. And since it takes prolonged contact with an infected person in order to catch the virus, travelers who have Ebola won’t necessary immediately give it to everyone else on their plane. Nonetheless, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has developed guidelines just in case an infected traveler brings Ebola to the U.S.