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As the death count from the latest Ebola outbreak in West Africa passes 140, health experts are struggling to contain the deadly virus before it spreads beyond the region.
Make no mistake; the effects of Ebola are terrifying. Ebola outbreaks have had death tolls in the hundreds before, including the original outbreak that made the disease infamous in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1976, the Kikwit outbreak (again in the DRC) of 1995, and an outbreak in Uganda/Congo Brazzaville in 2002.
No one knows for sure what the causes of Ebola are. Experts say it hides in certain animals and it is thought that certain types of bats and primates could be harbourers of the virus. In the areas where Ebola has presented this time, it has been linked to people eating bush meat, from chimpanzees, monkeys and bats.
The Ebola virus causes a severe acute viral illness often characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache, and diarrhoea and vomiting. The hallmark of the disease is profuse bleeding and can have fatality rate of up to 90%. It is a truly horrible condition.
The challenge for aid agencies, health officials and the authorities is that they must contain the Ebola virus without the aid of any vaccines to prevent its spread or medicines to treat those infected. None currently exists. With no treatment or vaccine available, prevention is the most effective way to stop transmission.
Traces of hope
In the past outbreaks have taken place in remote rural areas, and were short-lived once health workers could isolate them. This was the case when an outbreak hit Congo Brazzaville were I was deployed as Desk Officer for West and Central Africa for the British Red Cross in 2002.
During my time there, I learnt that Ebola outbreaks can be contained. A lot of people who I saw die were linked, and had been in contact with each other. Typical for Ebola outbreaks, we saw that there was a chain of transmissions in families.
To our advantage, we now know from other outbreaks that epidemics can be stopped. And the principle is always the same: you need to isolate suspected patients to prevent them from passing on the disease to people around them.
The Ebola virus spreads through contact with blood and other bodily fluids, so its essential people don't touch those infected or the bodies of the deceased.
What eventually won out during the 2002 Central and East Africa outbreak was the employment of a concerted public awareness campaign. Our Red Cross teams, together with local and government authorities, community leaders and other aid agencies, took to the streets and villages educating the public on how to respond to the outbreak. Red Cross volunteers in Congo Brazzaville put messages on radio and TV stations and put posters around the community as part of a long-term programme to inform the public and help prevent further infections.
We need to move swiftly to support the communities in the affected regions of West Africa now, with proper information and medical aid in equal measure.
In Sierra Leone, which borders Guinea, the Red Cross, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and the telecoms company Airtel, is using an innovative system called the Trilogy Emergency Relief Application (TERA) in 4 districts bordering Guinea. A simple text messaging service, it seeks to help prevent the spread of the Ebola virus by sending messages containing advice and information direct to people’s mobile phones.
The Red Cross has also launched emergency operations across six West African countries in response to the outbreak. In Guinea, the Red Cross has issued an emergency appeal to support more than 3 million people in at-risk communities. Funds have also been released from the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund to support awareness raising activities in neighbouring countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone and Senegal.
With a concerted effort, international support and diligence in our response to the current crisis, we should be able to contain the outbreak and learn new ways to avert future epidemics.