Health

The latest Ebola outbreak explained

A 43 year old Congolese patient, center, who has been confirmed to have Ebola hemorrhagic fever, following laboratory tests, is comforted by Medecins Sans Frontieres.
A 43 year old Congolese patient, center, who has been confirmed to have Ebola hemorrhagic fever, following laboratory tests, is comforted by Medecins Sans Frontieres.ASSOCIATED PRESS

At least 70 people have died in the West African nation of Guinea from the Ebola virus since the deadly outbreak began in March, the Reuters reported.

The majority of cases have been detected in the southern part of the country but the new cases have been identified in the capital city and have crossed the border into Liberia, which suggests that the disease is spreading.

How does such a deadly virus emerge? Why is it so hard to prevent its spread? Could there ever be an outbreak in the US? Here’s what you need to know.

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undated handout image of the Ebola virus, created by CDC microbiologist Cynthia Goldsmith and made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.EPA

Ebola is contagious and kills most who become infected.

Ebola a fatal form of hemorrhagic fever that is caused by five different types of viruses. Ebola is one of the most aggressive and deadliest viral diseases known to humans, according to the World Health Organization. The strain suspected in the Guinea outbreak is called Zaire ebolavirus, which is the most lethal strain. It was last detected in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009. The symptoms of the virus begin with fever and muscle pain and can progess to bleeding from the body’s orfices and shock. Up to 90 percent of people who are infected with the virus die, and there is no known cure.

Ebola spreads through direct contact with the blood, body fluids, and tissues of those who are infected, or through contact with a dead animal who is infected. The World Health Organization and public health experts in Central Africa have traced the origin of some cases to bats. Guinea’s government has currently banned its residents from drinking bat soup, a delicacy in the region.

The latest outbreak is unusual. It seems to be spreading faster and farther than normal.

As rare as an Ebola outbreak is, when it does occur, the cases are typically contained in the jungle or rural region. The latest outbreak, which has spread to Guinea’s capital and has crossed the border into at least one of its neighboring countries. This suggests that it is spreading because of human contact, or the movement of dead bodies that are infected with the virus, Ian Lipkin, the John Snow Professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health told National Geographic.

The goal now is to isolate and contain.

Public health organizations like Doctors Without Borders have quarantined certain areas where the most cases are occuring. Their goal is to care for those who have been infected and stem off funeral practices that may spread the disease, Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician at University of Pittsburgh and a representative of the Infectious Diseases Society of America.

“In the capital city, hospitals will have better infection control practices,” Adalja told Boston.com. “Hopefully you won’t see much more spread in the city.”

Ebola is not out of the question in the US.

Well, maybe. Remember, there are 5 different strains of the ebola virus. One of the strains, known as Ebola Reston, got its name because it was detected in a lab in Reston, Virginia, in 1989. A shipment of imported monkeys to the lab had been infected with the disease, but humans were spared.

Unlike the other strains, which are deadly to humans, Ebola Reston “can’t cause disease in humans and doesn’t behave the same in humans as it does in primates,” said Adalja.

Technically, any infectious disease is able to spread from one part of the world to another, but the likelihood that the disease will continue uncontained and reach outbreak levels is unlikely, said Adalja.

“It’s important to know about these diseases because they do spread,” said Adalja. “Ebola isn’t one I anticipate would pose a threat in the US.”

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