AUG. 3 — West Africa is grappling with one of the world’s most fearsome and elusive adversaries: the Ebola virus.
As of Monday, the World Health Organization had tallied more than 880 dead, mostly in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. That includes dozens of local health workers and the top Ebola doctors in Sierra Leone and Liberia. WHO chief Margaret Chan said late last week that the epidemic is out of control.
As with previous outbreaks, the virus shows no mercy. Ebola kills up to 90 percent of its victims with astonishing swiftness. The average time from start of symptoms to death is just eight days.
Ebola, transmitted by contact with an infected person’s blood or other fluids, makes those eight excruciating days of high fever, diarrhea and often profuse bleeding from body orifices and even the skin’s pores. “The virus attacks the body’s soft tissues — a process some doctors describe, bluntly, as like watching a patient ‘dissolve,’” Tribune correspondent Paul Salopek reported during a 2000 outbreak.
There is no cure. No effective treatment. No vaccine.
The rest of the world, a plane ride or two away, shudders.
“What’s going on is unprecedented,” Thomas Hope, a virologist at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, tells us. “Usually these things last two or three weeks and then get isolated.” Not this time. And, Hope says, usually the virus grows less lethal as it passes from person to person, so people get less and less sick from it. Not this time. “That is more than a little unnerving to me as a virologist because it suggests that maybe this strain is a little different or has adapted in a different way to cause disease in humans.”
Infectious disease expert Dr. Michael Osterholm of the University of Minnesota tells us that this strain of Ebola isn’t likely to be much different than others, but that international public health and local government officials “were slow to understand how fast the virus was spreading.” That’s why doctors and other health professionals are struggling to contain the disease. “This is like trying to change a tire in a hurricane,” he says.
Ebola staged its first devastating appearance in simultaneous 1976 outbreaks in Sudan and in a Congo village near the Ebola River, from which the virus took its name. It confounded scientists at first because it strikes swiftly and retreats. Researchers collected tens of thousands of tropical plants, animals and insects, including bedbugs, mosquitoes and rats, searching for the virus’ carrier or “reservoir.” In this case, researchers believe bats were the carriers: People eat the bats, or possibly eat food that was contaminated by saliva, urine or feces from a bat.
A fearsome disease quarantined far, far away? Maybe not for long.
Consider the case of Patrick Sawyer, a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked in Liberia and was supposed to fly to Minneapolis in mid-August to celebrate birthdays for two of his three young daughters, as Michael Daly reports in The Daily Beast. Sawyer had been tending a sick sister in Liberia and had not known she had contracted Ebola until after she died. Sawyer grew ill while on a July 20 business flight. He collapsed at the Lagos, Nigeria, airport and died July 25. Sawyer’s wife told Daly, “I never thought Ebola would break down my front door, and that’s what it did.”
Emory University Hospital officials in Georgia said they will treat an Ebola-infected American humanitarian workers airlifted from Africa to the U.S. The hospital played down risks, saying “physicians, nurses and staff are highly trained in the specific and unique protocols and procedures necessary to treat and care for this type of patient.”
Yet the stealth and fierce resolve of viruses is an awesome and frightening natural wonder. Just as awesome: the courage of health professionals who don the medical equivalent of hazmat suits to treat patients, knowing they still may put their lives at grave risk. Merely touching an infected person’s skin is perilous.
Doctors in parts of West Africa also face hostile local residents who resist outside treatment, distrust foreign doctors, and blame visitors for carrying the disease. In many cases, “people appear to have more confidence in witch doctors,” The New York Times reports.
As scientists gain a better understanding of Ebola, they may also unlock new clues into how Earth’s most fearsome predators, from the HIV virus to the common cold, stalk their victims by wiggling past — or blasting through — our immune systems. At the very least, the battle against Ebola reminds us of the infinite unpredictability of nature, of our many and manifest vulnerabilities, and of our tightly interconnected world.