SENEGAL has just confirmed its first case of ebola, a Guinean national who recently arrived in the country.
This officially means the West African outbreak is spread across five countries. However, last week the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) confirmed cases of ebola within its borders, and it took almost no time at all for media sources to jump on this information and misreport it as “the fifth African nation affected by the outbreak”.
The ebola cases in DRC are entirely unrelated to those in the West African nations of Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria and Senegal and in fact, the cases in DRC are a completely different strain of the virus. The confirmation of ebola cases in DRC is not a sign that the crisis is escalating, but a reminder that the virus is present in various parts of Africa and can manifest itself in differing strains.
One of the very first recorded outbreaks of the ebola virus was in DRC, (formerly Zaire) back in 1976. The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals, often when people eat bushmeat or fruit bats as part of their diet — not an uncommon occurrence in remote, poverty-stricken areas. In fact, when a colleague of mine travelled to DRC in 2011, there was an ebola outbreak in the east of the country at that time. Ebola is not a new virus to DRC and it certainly did not travel there from West Africa.
So why is this being so widely misreported as being a further spread of the West African outbreak? Much of the reporting around ebola is rife with rumours and misconceptions. In my experience, there seem to be three main popular misconceptions around the viral outbreak.
The first is that it is easy to contract ebola. Due to the gruesome nature in which the virus manifests itself in humans, people are understandably terrified of contracting ebola. Anecdotes abound about how people are scared of being on an airplane in the same confined space as anyone travelling from West Africa.
However, ebola is not airborne and cannot be contracted by simply sitting beside someone and breathing the same air. Concern Worldwide have dedicated staff on the ground in both Sierra Leone and Liberia, none of whom have contracted the virus or come even close. This is because the people most at risk of contracting the virus are those working in frontline health (doctors, nurses) and family members caring for patients. Patients are not contagious until they are visibly ill. The virus is transmitted through bodily fluids so most people are not at risk and barrier nursing is sufficient to protect oneself.
The second misconception is that ebola is a death sentence. The WHO states that: “Ebola virus disease outbreaks have a case fatality of up to 90%”. However, the fatality rates in the current outbreak are significantly lower than this, at just over 50%.
The experimental drug, ZMapp, is yielding promising results in a number of patients afflicted by ebola. It is under development as a treatment for the virus and was first tested on humans during the current outbreak in West Africa.
Some patients treated by ZMapp have made a full recovery and have been released from hospital with the all-clear. Other (though fewer) patients have not been so lucky, and have died despite the treatment. This may not be due to inefficacy of the drug but rather due to giving the dosage too late, or the patient being too elderly to respond well. At this stage the drug is still experimental, but yields hope.
We must remember that there are many people who have contracted ebola and who have survived; 47% of all people infected in the current West African outbreak have recovered. Epidemiological evidence suggests that ebola survivors may now be immune to the strain of the virus that infected them, which is undoubtedly good news for those returning home or returning to work in a health clinic.
The third misconception is that international airports need to be shut down to stop the outbreak reaching Europe. No one wants an ebola outbreak similar to that in Sierra Leone to occur in Ireland. But we must be aware that the virus has only been able to spread so far and wide in West Africa due to poor health infrastructure and the inability of poorer nations to respond quickly and effectively. If the virus was ever to reach Irish shores, we have a health system which could isolate and contain cases to stop it spreading further.
Moreover, we have a highly-educated population who would not be so susceptible to misleading rumours affecting those in Sierra Leone, such as the rumour that the virus was purposely introduced to poor people by the government or by Western agencies.
Concern Worldwide has been working in Sierra Leone and Liberia since 1996 and we have not evacuated any staff from either country during the current ebola outbreak. Our staff members have been well trained in preventative measures and in how to protect themselves. In the midst of chaos and rumour, it is vital we take stock from a rational point of view. Nonetheless, ebola is serious and the latest information from the WHO suggests the numbers will grow higher before it is contained.
Concern Worldwide is working hard with both government and local communities in Sierra Leone and Liberia to combat the further spread of the virus. We will continue to do so.