Since March, Ebola has killed almost 4,000 people in West Africa. While the virus’s path has only led to one death in the U.S. and one confirmed case on European soil, the psychological contagion is ramping up, becoming more widespread by the day. Information on new cases or “possible” cases of the virus remain fluid (a Czech man is being tested in Prague; seven additional people are being monitored in Spain), and hints of hysteria and paranoia have begun to creep into a headline that, until recently, was viewed mainly as an African problem and not a Western one, despite the large-scale international response.
“In the 30 years I’ve been working public health, the only thing like this has been AIDS, and we have to work now so that this is not the world’s next AIDS,” said Dr. Tom Frieden, the Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health of humans around the world is connected; that is one lesson AIDS taught the medical community. Will Ebola be a global pandemic? Or because it is a quick killer will the virus simply burn itself out? While news about Ebola is everywhere, here are 10 things you might not know about the deadly virus.
10. The Zaire Strain
The Zaire strain of the Ebola virus is responsible for the current epidemic in West Africa. It is the deadliest known strain of the virus. Besides the Zaire strain, there are four other known species of the Ebola virus: Cote d’ Ivoire, Ebola Bundibugyo, Sudan virus, and the Reston strain. Cote d’ Ivoire, which is also known as the Tai’ Forest strain, first surfaced in 1995 when a Swiss ethologist was infected from doing a necropsy on a chimpanzee. The Bundibugyo strain was first detected in Uganda in 2007. The Reston strain is found in China and the Philippines, and while it is not believed to be disease-causing in humans, it has killed scores of monkeys and pigs.
9. The Economic Impact
While the death toll from Ebola in West Africa has risen sharply, the virus is also having a devastating impact on the economies of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Joseph Sam Sesay, Sierra Leone’s Agriculture Minister, says the economy has been deflated by 30 percent. The agricultural sector has been particularly hard hit. In an attempt to stop the spread of the virus, roadblocks manned by police and military have been set up all over the country, not only preventing the movement of farmers –who make up 66 percent of Sierra Leone’s population – but also the supply of goods.
8. Outbreak Statistics
Until 2014, the deadliest Ebola outbreak on record killed 280 people. The current outbreak, which started in March in West Africa, has killed more than 3,860 according to BBC News. Among the 3,860 victims, at least 200 are healthcare workers. On October 14, the deputy head of the World Health Organization said Ebola is “entrenched and accelerating” in the capitals of the three worst affected West African countries -Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone -where 70 percent of the people with Ebola are dying from the disease.
7. Patient Zero
It is widely believed that Meliandou, a remote village of thatch-roofed shacks in the Forest Region of southern Guinea, is the home of patient zero. Ebola likely arrived in the village in the body of a fruit bat; scientists agree that the fruit bat is Ebola’s natural, non-human reservoir. Mining interests have exploded in the Forest Region of Guinea, and the Anglo-Australian mining group Rio Tinto has pushed to exploit the country’s rich natural resources. One theory about the current Ebola outbreak suggests that rampant mining and clear-cutting in the region forced fruit bats from their natural habitat and closer to humans. One Ebola infected fruit bat, feeding on a palm or mango, may have been enough to trigger one of the deadliest viruses known to medical science.
6. Incubation Period
Ebola kills quickly. However, the virus can take up to three weeks to incubate, with most cases taking about 10 days. Ebola’s incubation period is long enough that an infected person can travel and spread the virus without showing any symptoms. In fact, Ebola cannot be detected in the blood until symptoms begin to show, so even if a person is tested during the incubation period, Ebola will come up negative. At the same time, the incubation period is also long enough that contact with an infected source can easily be forgotten; this makes uncovering the transmission chain particularly difficult.
5. Mistaken Diagnosis
Part of the reason the Ebola outbreak spiraled out of control so quickly is because health workers mistook it for cholera, and then later, Lassa fever –a lethal virus that also produces hemorrhaging and which is widespread in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia. Health workers from around the globe stood at the epicenter of the Ebola outbreak, but they did not understand what they were looking at. Before Ebola reaches its final stages, many of its symptoms are similar to other diseases, including cholera and malaria, both of which are ordinary, everyday killers in West Africa. Bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, anus, and nipples are symptoms associated with the final stages of Ebola, but not every case ends that way, contrary to the disease’s cinematic depiction.
According to “Hell in the Hot Zone,” an article by Jeffrey E. Stern in Vanity Fair, Dr. Michel Van Herp, an epidemiologist in Brussels, was the first to suspect Ebola. What triggered his suspicion was the fact that more than half the victims had developed hiccups. It is not clear why hiccups are associated with Ebola, but it is one of the virus’s symptoms. It took over three and a half months from the start of the outbreak for the medical community to figure out what they were dealing with.
4. Fear and Misinformation
At the beginning of the Ebola outbreak, there were many in West Africa who did not believe the epidemic was real. Conspiracy theories and misinformation spread as quickly as the virus. A prominent member of the Fula ethnic group, a rival of the sitting president, said, “President Conde made up the virus because he’s trying to delay elections.” A spiritual guide in the region told villagers “the epidemic was a plague that could be cured by sacrificing seven cows.” Due to the fact Ebola had never been anywhere near Guinea before, many people believed that foreigners had a hand in the epidemic, and this theory only intensified when health workers –“white people” –started setting up fearsome-looking isolation centers in villages to stop the spread of the virus. People who were sick simply stopped seeking treatment, which created an illusion amongst the medical community that the Ebola outbreak was under control.
3. Ebola Beyond West Africa
Since the death of Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., and the recently confirmed diagnosis of a 44-year old nurse in Spain, there are heightened fears of Ebola spreading beyond West Africa. A new report from BBC News says a 57-year old woman from Northern Australia may have also contacted the virus, and medical officials are awaiting test results. In fact, there have been an escalating number of reports of “possible” Ebola infections, and it seems likely those reports will only continue to increase; however, until laboratory tests are done, reports remain little more than rumors and concerns. According to the CDC, more than 100 possible cases of Ebola have been assessed in the U.S.
2. Increased Security Scrutiny at Airports
Passengers returning to the U.S. from Ebola-affected countries will now face increased security scrutiny at five major airports: O’Hare, JFK, Newark, Washington’s Dulles, and Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. Travelers will have their temperatures taken and be given a questionnaire to fill out; representatives from the CDC will intervene and provide a health assessment if a passenger is running a fever or has answered yes to any of the questions. Citizens who refuse the screening may end up in quarantine for up to three weeks. The same type of enhanced airport screening is set to get underway in the UK as well, with medical assessments planned at Heathrow, Gatwick, and Eurostar terminals.
1. Budget Cuts Halted Ebola Vaccine
The Director of the National Institutes of Health said, “an Ebola vaccine might already be available to the thousands of people stricken with the deadly virus had Congress not spent the past decade slashing medical research funding,” according to a report in the Boston Herald. In fact, over the past four years funding for the NIH has been cut by $1.2 billion, and during that same time the CDC program that supports health professionals working on the front lines of the Ebola epidemic has been slashed by 16 percent. Adding insult to injury, the head of the NIH said that an Ebola vaccine was on track until cuts slowed the process. “If we had not gone through this 10-year decline in the support of biomedical research, we would be a year or two ahead of where we are now.”