Ebola crisis hits West Africa

The Ebola virus has hit the headlines in the last few months, sweeping through Africa with devastating consequences, infecting over 5000 people and killing approximately half that number.

It has been declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the World Health Organisation, and has sent numerous countries into lockdown.

America has now sent troops to Africa to give humanitarian aid to the countries which lack the resources and health systems to battle the outbreak effectively themselves. But what exactly is Ebola?

A false-colour electron micrograph of an Ebola virus virion.  Photo credit: Cynthia Goldsmith

A false-colour electron micrograph of an Ebola virus virion.
Photo credit: Cynthia Goldsmith

Formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, the virus got its name from a village near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it made its first appearance in 1976.

Fruit bats are thought to be the original hosts, with transmission of the disease through the human population owed to contacts with blood, organs and other bodily fluids of the infected. The symptoms of the disease include fever, diarrhoea, rash, bleeding and signs of impaired kidney and liver functionality, which become prevalent after an incubation period of two to twenty-one days.

It is only currently possible to treat the symptoms of Ebola; for the time being there is nothing conclusively proven to combat the virus itself, although there are a number of therapies being tested, including two vaccines.

These experimental treatments have been fast-tracked due to the outbreak, now trial of a potential vaccine on healthy volunteers has begun in Oxford, with similar studies being undertaken in the US. It is hoped results will be available by the end of the year.

A drug called ZMapp, developed in the US, is still undergoing trials, but has been made available to a limited number of aid workers. It is difficult to make a definitive statement on the efficacy of the drug, which comprises of three monoclonal antibodies which bind to the virus protein.

All that can be done to stem the outbreak of Ebola is ensuring that affected communities have an awareness of the disease; how to conduct safe burials, reducing the risk of contact with the disease, including identification of those who may have encountered it, and the wearing of protective equipment.

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