The Ebola Outbreak

In 1976, a number of people living along a tributary of the Congo River in the country then known as Zaire began showing symptoms of a mysterious illness. The patients had fever, hemorrhaging, and multiple organ failure, and many died in agony. Doctors identified it as Marburg virus disease, but a type they had never seen before. They named this new strain of the disease, and the virus causing it, after the tributary, which was called by French colonists the Ebola river. Thirty-eight years later, international media are reporting daily on another outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, this time in Guinea and northern Liberia, and recently spreading into Sierra Leone. The World Health Organization has announced a $100 million response plan to try to contain and end this outbreak, but fear is spreading.

That fear is even spreading to the United States. The fear has fueled the politicization of the illness, which in turn has heightened the fear; in the midst of that, two Americans who had been on the front lines of fighting the disease contracted it themselves and were flown to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta for experimental treatments, and there were reports that a man named Eric Silverman who went into a New York emergency room reporting high fever and gastrointestinal problems after returning from a trip to West Africa might have the disease. Experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Silverman was not infected with Ebola virus, and the patients in Atlanta are being carefully monitored.

In general, health experts say the fears are largely groundless. This is because of the way the disease spreads. Catching Ebola virus disease requires getting up close and personal with someone who is already infected—the virus is transmitted only through bodily fluids, such as waste and blood, and only when they contact mucus membranes such as the mouth or eyes, or are introduced directly into the bloodstream such as through medical equipment that is reused without proper sterilization. Sex is a transmission route in principle, but not a frequent activity among people who are suffering from the disease; however, the semen of survivors can be infectious for nearly two months. Animal-to-human transmission, while not unheard of, is rare, but several outbreaks—it is unknown if the current one is among them—have been traced to single individuals who got the disease from animal carcasses. Bats are frequently responsible; the 1976 outbreak seems to have been due to bats in the cotton factory where many of the patients worked.

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