The deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has hit “unprecedented” proportions, according to relief workers on the ground.
“The epidemic is out of control,” Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement.
There have been 567 cases and 350 deaths since the epidemic began in March, according to the latest World Health Organization figures.
In April, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta traveled to Conakry, Guinea, to report on what was being done to treat patients and contain the outbreak.
“It took only moments to feel the impact of what was happening here,” Gupta wrote after landing in Conakry. “There is a lot we know about Ebola, and it scares us almost as much as what we don’t know.”
Ebola outbreaks usually are confined to remote areas, making it easier to contain. But this outbreak is different; patients have been identified in 60 locations in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
Officials believe the wide footprint of this outbreak is partly because of the close proximity between the jungle where the virus was first identified and cities such as Conakry. The capital in Guinea has a population of 2 million and an international airport.
People are traveling without realizing they’re carrying the deadly virus. It can take between two and 21 days after exposure for someone to feel sick.
Ebola is a violent killer. The symptoms, at first, mimic the flu: headache, fever, fatigue. What comes next sounds like something out of a horror movie: significant diarrhea and vomiting, while the virus shuts off the blood’s ability to clot.
As a result, patients often suffer internal and external hemorrhaging. Many die in an average of 10 days.
Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, is the only aid organization treating people affected by the virus. Since March, they have sent more than 300 staff members and 40 tons of equipment and supplies to the region to help fight the epidemic.
Still, they warn, it’s not enough.
“Despite the human resources and equipment deployed by MSF in the three affected countries, we are no longer able to send teams to the new outbreak sites.”
The good news is that Ebola isn’t as easily spread as one may think. A patient isn’t contagious — meaning they can’t spread the virus to other people — until they are already showing symptoms.
Serious protective measures
Inside the isolation treatment areas in Conakry, doctors focus on keeping the patients hydrated with IV drips and other liquid nutrients. Health officials have urged residents to seek treatment at the first sign of flu-like symptoms.
There is no cure or vaccine to treat Ebola, but MSF has shown it doesn’t have to be a death sentence if it’s treated early. Ebola typically kills 90% of patients. This outbreak, the death rate has dropped to roughly 60%.
Gupta describes the scene outside an isolation ward in Guinea:
Before the doctors go into the isolation ward, Gupta says, they stop in a separate tent beforehand to gear up.
Healthcare workers dressed in scrubs and thick white rubber boots. They slipped on blue latex gloves, then a thick yellow impermeable suit, followed by a mask, then a white hood with another mask built into it. A pair of large clear goggles went over the hood, and then a large white apron.