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Ebola in Africa: Can we dodge a global pandemic?

Ebola

 (CDC/ Cynthia Goldsmith)

Right now, a fight for survival is taking place in the West African nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Ebola, one of the most lethal diseases on the planet, is on a killing rampage.  In Guinea, 303 people have died. In Sierra Leone, 99 have perished, and in Guinea, 65 lives have been claimed.

Within a few days, these figures will be higher. And the disease appears to just be getting warmed up. Spread by contact with bodily fluids, Ebola is flourishing in West Africa, and could be coming soon to a place near you.

When the outbreak began in Guinea in April, the mortality rate was higher than it is now. But the virus is still an extreme hazard, and health workers must work in full bio-hazard suits in order to keep themselves from being infected by the patients they are serving. The protective suits are extremely hot in the sweltering West African climate. They are like little mobile sauna units, slowly cooking the doctors, nurses and aids working inside them.

Named after the Ebola River, the virus was first discovered in 1976 in what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. A viral disease, Ebola starts out like a bad flu, exhibiting initial symptoms of fever, weakness, headache and muscle pain – but that’s where the similarities end.

The more severe symptoms commence as early as two days after contact with the virus. Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever, meaning it causes the rupturing of blood vessels throughout the body.  Victims may bleed from the eyes, nose, mouth, ears, anus and genitals, as well as through skin ruptures. The liver, lungs, spleen and lymph nodes can be overcome by Ebola, leading to massive organ failure, and an agonizing death can follow.

There are five strains of Ebola: Zaire, Sudan, Reston, Cote d’Ivoire, and Bundibugyo. Of these, four are known to cause the disease in humans, whereas Reston does not appear to do so.  The disease is transmitted from animals to humans. Fruit bats, monkeys, and wild game may host the virus and spread it to humans, but bats in particular are on the radar of health officials. They are known as reservoir species, carrying the virus without becoming sick from the disease.

Despite urgent, high level attention from the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ebola has no specific treatment, no vaccine, and no effective medicines. Bed rest and remaining hydrated appear to be as effective as any course of treatment, with a disease whose mortality rate can be as high as 90 percent. In clinics, Ebola patients are kept isolated as much as possible, and any utensils used to diagnose them must be fastidiously sterilized. Health workers take a huge risk tending to the Ebola infected, and only bio-hazard suits afford enough protection. Still, even one accidental prick from a dirty needle can lead to infection. It is very risky business.

Now, we don’t have to worry, right? Ebola is, after all, over in Africa, far removed from us. Nothing could be further from the alarming truth.

Imagine this scenario: A health worker tends to Ebola patients in Guinea, and remains healthy due to good sanitation practices. Eventually, that health worker needs to travel to the United States or Europe, and he or she boards a plane. Unknowingly, they are infected but symptom-free so far. On the long flight home, they start to feel some aches and chills, and at one point, they sneeze, sending thousands of viruses into the air through the atomized mucus expelled from the nose. Other passengers breathe that air, taking in a few viruses here and there, and they become infected.

And a global pandemic starts to roll.

This is neither a far-off scenario nor science fiction. It is a real possibility. And this is why health officials are so gravely concerned about the current Ebola outbreak. Unlike previous smaller outbreaks which have occurred in rural locations, this one is happening in hot, humid cities where crowds are dense and sanitation is sketchy; where basic hygiene is often hard to manage and many people eat wild game that might be infected. It is a perfect recipe for a massive, uncontrolled outbreak. Infecting another person is as easy as a sneeze, a kiss, cleaning up after someone, making contact with mucus, urine or feces.

The question, then, is what can you do? Except for staying away from anyone infected, you can’t do much. Right now it’s up to the health workers laboring in excessively hot bio-hazard suits, and to officials who are working hard on containment. This situation in West Africa could in fact be the start of a global disaster, or it may be another near-miss. The threat is real, and the disease is on the move. Will we dodge the Ebola bullet? Right now, all we can do is watch and wait.

Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more at MedicineHunter.com.