Fears of an Ebola epidemic spreading from the West African nation of Guinea are unfounded, health officials say, as the fight is on to end one of the worst outbreaks of the deadly disease in recent history.
Doctors Without Borders reported Monday that 122 people have contracted Ebola -- which is perhaps the best-known and deadliest of the world’s hemorrhagic fevers -- during the current outbreak, and that 78 of them have died.
Senegal has closed its border with Guinea, and the World Health Organization confirmed Sunday that Ebola cases have been identified in two border countries. A rumor in Nigeria, West Africa's most populous nation, sparked an Ebola scare that the nation’s health officials quickly defused.
But leading health officials and experts say that there is very little chance that the Ebola outbreak will spread much beyond Guinea, as the nature of the disease and the efficacy of efforts to stop its spread will likely cause it to peter out fairly quickly, much as other recent Ebola outbreaks have.
Most of the victims are residents of Guinea, but cases have also been confirmed in Sierra Leone and Liberia, adding weight to a Monday statement by Mariano Luigi, the Doctors Without Borders coordinator for Guinea, describing the geographic reach of the outbreak as “unprecedented.”
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But Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said that fears that the disease will spread widely are misguided. Fauci pointed out that Ebola is a relatively easy virus to contain when compared with airborne illnesses, because it is transmitted almost exclusively through contact with corpses of Ebola victims or with bedridden victims in advanced stages of infection, and consumption of infected meats.
“It’s very close personal contact with the body secretions and the blood that is undoubtedly there. It’s not the kind of disease like influenza where people can spread it by just standing next to a person and sneezing,” he said in a phone interview. “Yes, you could see it go from Guinea to maybe Sierra Leone or to Liberia, but the idea of it all of a sudden spreading throughout the world the way influenza spreads, that’s just not the way Ebola spreads.”
Armand Sprecher, a Brussels-based public health specialist at Doctors Without Borders, emphasized that Ebola's spreading from Guinea to Liberia and Sierra Leone is more a result of the close proximity of those countries to the outbreak’s epicenter than an indication that it will disseminate to more countries.
“The first thing is not to confuse the multiplication in the number of countries with significant geographic spread,” Sprecher said via phone. “You cross a river and you’re in Liberia, you cross another, you’re in Sierra Leone.”
Still, Guinea’s government and health organizations working within the nation’s borders are taking steps to contain the spread of Ebola and bring an end to the current outbreak.
Medical facilities within the country are tightening infection control procedures, while the government is educating its population about the dangers of eating "bush meat," wild animals including monkeys -- a cultural tradition believed to be the source of many Ebola incidents -- and the importance of dealing with people who have contracted Ebola in a safe manner, both before and after they die.
The importance of ensuring that Guinea’s mourners avoid traditional funerary practices involving the hugging and touching of the dead cannot be overstated, according to Sprecher, who said that the process to eliminate Ebola in a place where it has emerged is fairly straightforward, and that it is being swiftly and effectively implemented in Guinea.
“If you want to effectively control an outbreak you have to find cases, take them to a treatment unit, and then you have to visit all of their contacts for 21 days and make sure they don’t become ill,” he said, adding later that “the outbreak should be brought under control through the normal outbreak control mechanisms, and that’s being brought to bear.”
Despite the fact that Ebola is a relatively easy virus to contain and eradicate, nearby countries have been affected by the disease’s recent resurgence in Guinea, and some observers are concerned about its emergence in Guinea’s capital, Conakry.
Senegal has closed its border with the country, and Nigeria was gripped by fear of contamination when some of the country’s leading media outlets reported that a 15-year-old woman died of the disease in the country’s Edo State last week.
The Nigerian Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, stated Wednesday that the woman actually died of dengue fever, squelching fears that Ebola had spread to Africa’s most populous nation.
"Nigeria is prepared right now to curtail any outbreak particularly given reports that few counties (sic) on the West Coast like Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea have reported cases of Ebola fever and given our proximity to these countries Nigeria is ready, the [Health Ministry] has every precaution including getting with vaccines and medicines to ensure that should there be any incidence in Nigeria, everything would be dealt with precision,” Maku said, according to Nigerian newspaper This Day.
Nelson Dafe, a journalist at Nigeria's News Express newspaper, said via online chat that many of his fellow Nigerians are not concerned about the Ebola outbreak.
"Here in Benin City in the mid-west of southern Nigeria, people are not talking about it. I doubt if they are even aware about the outbreak of the disease," he wrote.
Still, the National Institutes of Health's Fauci said that raising awareness of the disease is a net positive for global health.
“The publicity that’s associated with this is a good thing even though it’s scaring some people, because it makes people aware,” he said, adding that “if they’re afraid of a worldwide epidemic, there’s very little chance of that … Ebola doesn’t work that way.”