Ebola: What Is It And How Does It Spread? The World Health Organisation Warnings
03 November 2014
By Tim Leslie
Thousands of people in West Africa have died in the
worst Ebola outbreak on record, and the World Health
Organisation warns the disease could infect 20,000
more before the end of the year.
The deadly viral infection is raging in Guinea,
Liberia and Sierra Leone - and has also spread into
Nigeria and Senegal. An outbreak said to be unrelated
to the one in West Africa has been reported in
Democratic Republic of Congo.
There have also been isolated Ebola cases in the
United States and Spain.
So what is
Ebola, and how does the deadly disease spread?
First discovered in 1976, the virus has periodically
spread through parts of Africa, killing thousands in
There is currently no vaccine, and due to its fast
onset and horrific symptoms it has become one of the
world's most feared diseases.
How does it
There are five strains of Ebola: Zaire, Sudan, Tai
Forest, Bundibugyo and Reston. The Zaire strain, which
is involved in the latest outbreak, is the most lethal
with a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent.
Humans can catch the virus from animals through close
contact with infected animals' blood, secretions,
organs or other bodily fluids.
The virus is thought to reside within the region's
fruit bat population, with the bats carriers of Ebola,
but unaffected by it.
The bushmeat trade (the catching and eating of wild
animals, including primates such as gorillas and
chimpanzees), is thought to play a role in outbreaks
of the disease.
While cooking infected meat kills the virus, handling
of the meat beforehand can cause infection.
Once in the human population, the virus continues
spreading through direct contact with blood,
secretions, organs or other bodily fluids.
The World Health Organisation has specifically noted
traditional healing and burial practices in rural
regions as a factor in the spread of the disease.
The US Centres for Disease Control says people can
only catch Ebola by: coming into direct contact with
the blood or body fluids of a person who is sick or
has died from Ebola; touching contaminated objects; or
touching or eating infected animals.
It notes Ebola does not spread through the air or
How does it
affect the body?
containing Ebola proving difficult?
In West Africa, the man-made elements of conflict,
confusion and culture have all combined to create a
perfect-storm for Ebola.
The scientist who first identified Ebola in 1976 gives
direct and simple advice on how to contain this latest
"Soap, gloves, isolating patients, not reusing needles
and quarantining the contacts of those who are ill -
in theory it should be very easy to contain Ebola," Dr
Peter Piot told the BBC.
In practice, this is a much tougher proposition. The
main outbreak has emerged in war ravaged West Africa,
where much of the health care infrastructure has been
Poverty has combined with fear, ignorance and
superstition, particularly in remote communities,
where distrust of government is understandably high,
and belief in witchcraft and sorcery is interwoven
into everyday life.
Testing for Ebola often requires multiple blood tests
– which is difficult to conduct in areas where strong
cultural beliefs prohibit collection of a "life
In Liberia, some communities believe the outbreak is a
hoax, and that health care workers have been sent to
kill them. In one town, health care workers spraying
chlorine – a cheap and effective counter to the spread
of the disease - were attacked.
In Guinea, Medicines Sans Frontiers (MSF) doctors and
medics were attacked by villagers who believed the
clinical team had brought Ebola to their country.
Governmental response has been heavy handed. Liberia's
president threatened to jail anyone sheltering or
hiding suspected Ebola cases.
An un-coordinated rush by the international community
to assist can also complicate efforts, says African
governance expert Kim Yi Dionne, especially when it
appears that no one is in charge.
Already involved in the Ebola response are the local
ministries of health for Liberia, Guinea and Sierra
Leone, the World Health Organisation, MSF, UNICEF and
many other agencies.