DENVER, Colorado — After years of lying low the Ebola virus reemerged in West Africa this March, reappearing suddenly and affecting the highest number of people since the last high-volume outbreak in Zaire back in 2007. This most recent outbreak surfaced in Guinea, and a smattering of cases has come to light in nearby Liberia. On May 10, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that Guinea had suffered 233 suspected and confirmed cases, including 157 deaths, and that there have been 12 suspected cases in Liberia.
So what exactly is the Ebola virus, and why is it suddenly reappearing? For a disease with a relatively short history, first appearing in 1976, it is marked by devastating and vast impacts with reported fatality rates as high as 90 percent. Transmitted from animals to people, and then via human contact, Ebola first presents itself as a sort of extreme flu with symptoms such as fever, weakness and a sore throat, later escalating to diarrhea, organ failure and sometimes internal and external bleeding.
Researchers have identified various fruit bat species as potential carriers of Ebola. It is then transmitted to people who either consume the fruit bats or eat animals that have come in contact with the carrier bats — scenarios that are both strong possibilities for how this particular outbreak got started.
A virus with such extreme symptoms and low rates of survival (not to mention one without a cure), struck fear the second that suspected cases surfaced. When word broke out that people in Guinea had contracted Ebola, there was a scramble for containment in order to minimize the damage. While Ebola is aggressive in individuals, it is not difficult to keep from spreading. As long as efforts are taken to quarantine the infected to prevent any further contamination, the outbreak can be stopped.
Recognizing this need for containment, Doctors Without Borders, Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network and WHO employees have been working to keep those with Ebola isolated and those who have not contracted the virus away from the potential infection.
While complete and immediate eradication is ideal when there is a virus outbreak, the nature of Ebola dictates that containment is often the most that can be done, at least until the experimental vaccinations that are being tested prove successful.
Amidst those who have succumbed to Ebola, there has been some success in ridding some of the infected of the virus in the past months. While Ebola has no known cure, it can be survived if proper treatments are implemented. Doctors Without Borders worked with Guineans who had Ebola making sure they were kept hydrated and that their secondary infections were appropriately tended to. With this approach, as of April 9, several patients were released from isolation to resume life as it was before Ebola came into their lives.
A key to understanding the presence of Ebola is answering this question: Why does it keep appearing in poverty stricken areas like Zaire, Ghana and now Guinea and Liberia? The answer revolves around the link between poverty and disease that is seen time and again with diseases like AIDS and malaria.
In the case of the Ebola virus, areas plagued by poverty are the most likely to resort to eating fruit bats and often lack resources to properly sanitize their food. People do what they need to in order to survive. Disease, in turn, contributes to poverty by weakening stability, wiping out populations and putting a strain on resources.
Is it hopeless? Absolutely not. When steps are taken to alleviate poverty, countries can improve food sanitation as well as increase access to medical resources that can more effectively prevent the spread of viruses. Small steps toward alleviating poverty could mean big steps toward making Ebola a thing of the past.