Experts cast worried eye on Ebola spread

April 4, 2014 by Richard Ingham, Olivier Thibault

Virologists say they are deeply worried by the unprecedented Ebola epidemic in West Africa which has claimed more than 90 lives and may now also have struck north into the Sahel.

A rare but extremely dangerous virus, Ebola is historically rooted in central Africa, although it has also caused past outbreaks in Uganda to the east.

Except for a non-fatal case in Ivory Coast in 1994, when a lab researcher was infected while examining a dead chimp, Ebola had not previously been found in the west of the continent.

How it got there is puzzling experts.

The viral species now causing havoc is the Zaire strain of Ebola, which slays between 70 and 90 percent of those it infects and was last reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2009.

"When I heard about the outbreak, my initial suspicion was that it could be the Ivory Coast species," said Thomas Geisbert, an expert on haemorrhagic fevers at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB).

"It turned out to be the Zaire species, which has never been connected with West Africa," Geisbert told AFP by email.

"I am very concerned, because I think we still don't know how the virus got into this region or the size of the boundaries of the affected area."

Sylvain Baize, who heads France's National Reference Centre for haemorrhagic fever, said the outbreak "is serious—by all accounts, it is not under control."

"It's worrying because it's the first time Ebola has emerged as a human epidemic in west Africa," he said.

Baize noted the "wide dispersion" of patients and also a case cluster in the Guinean capital, Conakry, which added to the complexity of tackling the epidemic.

Past outbreaks of Ebola have generally happened in remote rural areas, which makes their containment easier.

"That Ebola has found its way to densely-populated urban areas is a concern," Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at England's University of Nottingham said.

"Large numbers of people living at high density really helps infectious diseases spread."

There is no vaccine or cure for Ebola. An epidemic has to be stopped by isolating suspected cases in ultra-clean conditions and quarantining those who had been in contact with them.

This is a big ask in countries where monitoring networks are weak and basic materials like isolation tents, rubber gloves, soap and bleach may be scarce.

UN agencies and the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, commonly known by its French initials MSF, are helping to fight the outbreak.

Since the start of the year, Guinea has reported 134 suspected cases of Ebola, of whom 84 patients died.

In neighbouring Liberia to the south of Guinea, there have been 14 reported cases, seven fatal.

To the north of Guinea, the Sahel state of Mali said Thursday it had three suspected cases. The patients had been isolated and were improving.

Fruit bat worries

Baize pointed to the , suspected to be a natural "reservoir" where the Ebola virus holes up.

It can spread to animal primates and humans who handle infected meat—a risk given the informal trade in "bushmeat" in forested central and west Africa.

Among humans, the virus can spread through contact with infected blood, body fluids and tissue.

Symptoms include muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhoea and, in extreme cases, organ failure and unstoppable bleeding.

"The likeliest hypothesis is that the epidemic (in West Africa) is linked to the introduction of the virus with the fruitbat as an intermediary, although this still has to be confirmed," Baize said.

Explore further: Ebola outbreak in Guinea an 'unprecedented epidemic', MSF says (Update)

Related Stories

Ebola outbreak in Guinea an 'unprecedented epidemic', MSF says (Update)

March 31, 2014
Aid organisation Doctors Without Borders said Monday an Ebola outbreak suspected of killing at least 78 people in Guinea was an "unprecedented epidemic" that had spread across the west African nation.

Guinea's deadly fever caused by cocktail of viruses

March 31, 2014
The viral haemorrhagic fever epidemic raging in Guinea is caused by several viruses which have similar symptoms—the deadliest and most feared of which is Ebola.

Morocco steps up guard after Ebola outbreak in Guinea

April 1, 2014
Morocco announced extra health screening measures Tuesday at entry points to the country, in particular at Casablanca airport, after the outbreak of the deadly Ebola epidemic in Guinea.

Liberia confirms first Ebola cases

March 31, 2014
Liberia has confirmed two cases of the deadly Ebola virus that is suspected to have killed at least 78 people in neighbouring Guinea, according to the World Health Organization.

Liberia confirms spread of 'unprecedented' Ebola epidemic

March 31, 2014
Aid organisation Doctors Without Borders said Monday an Ebola outbreak suspected of killing dozens in Guinea was an "unprecedented epidemic" as Liberia confirmed its first cases of the deadly contagion.

Guinea reports Ebola death toll rises to 78

March 31, 2014
Health authorities in Guinea are facing an "unprecedented epidemic" of Ebola, an international aid group warned Monday as the death toll from the disease that causes severe bleeding reached 78.

Recommended for you

Research examines lung cell turnover as risk factor and target for treatment of influenza pneumonia

July 24, 2017
Influenza is a recurring global health threat that, according to the World Health Organization, is responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths every year, most due to influenza pneumonia, or viral pneumonia. Infection with ...

Scientists propose novel therapy to lessen risk of obesity-linked disease

July 24, 2017
With obesity related illnesses a global pandemic, researchers propose in the Journal of Clinical Investigation using a blood thinner to target molecular drivers of chronic metabolic inflammation in people eating high-fat ...

Raccoon roundworm—a hidden human parasite?

July 24, 2017
The raccoon that topples your trashcan and pillages your garden may leave more than just a mess. More likely than not, it also contaminates your yard with parasites—most notably, raccoon roundworms (Baylisascaris procyonis).

Google searches can be used to track dengue in underdeveloped countries

July 20, 2017
An analytical tool that combines Google search data with government-provided clinical data can quickly and accurately track dengue fever in less-developed countries, according to new research published in PLOS Computational ...

MRSA emerged years before methicillin was even discovered

July 19, 2017
Methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) emerged long before the introduction of the antibiotic methicillin into clinical practice, according to a study published in the open access journal Genome Biology. It was ...

New test distinguishes Zika from similar viral infections

July 18, 2017
A new test is the best-to-date in differentiating Zika virus infections from infections caused by similar viruses. The antibody-based assay, developed by researchers at UC Berkeley and Humabs BioMed, a private biotechnology ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.