Ebola: chief doctor fighting outbreak infected with virus

A member of Doctors Without Borders

Doctor in charge of fighting world's worst Ebola outbreak has himself caught the disease

LAST UPDATED AT 09:19 ON Thu 24 Jul 2014

The head doctor fighting an outbreak of Ebola in Sierra Leone has himself been infected with the disease, the president’s office has announced.

Sheik Umar Khan, a 39-year-old virologist who has treated more than 100 people infected with the deadly Ebola virus, has now been admitted to a treatment ward in Kailahun, the epicentre of the latest outbreak.

More than 630 people have died in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea since the outbreak began in February, according to the latest data from the World Health Organisation.

The outbreak in the three West African states is the deadliest to date. There is no known vaccination, cure or treatment for Ebola, beyond the relief of symptoms. The disease kills 90 per cent of those it infects.

Health minister Miatta Kargbo said the news about Dr Khan reduced her to tears. She described him as a "national hero" and said she would do "anything and everything in my power to ensure he survives," The Independent reports.

Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres described the latest outbreak as "out of control".

Nurses in the government hospital in Kenema town in Sierra Leone went on strike on Monday following the death of three of their colleagues of suspected Ebola, the BBC reports. The strike was suspended after the government promised to investigate their demands, which included the relocation of the Ebola ward from the hospital to a separate facility administered by Medecins Sans Frontieres.

It is not known how Dr Khan contracted the illness. Ebola is spread through bodily fluids such as sweat and saliva – but according to Reuters, the doctor was "always meticulous with protection, wearing overalls, mask, gloves and special footwear".

Nevertheless, Khan said he feared Ebola. "I am afraid for my life, I must say, because I cherish my life," he said. "Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk."

Ebola outbreak: why the disease is 'out of control'

11 July

The Ebola virus is "out of control" and continuing its rapid spread across Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, with the World Health Organisation recording 44 new infections and 21 deaths in just two days, Al Jazeera reports.

This comes despite agreement between West African nations about how to tackle the deadly disease at crisis talks held in Ghana.

We examine why governments and health workers are having such difficulty controlling the spread of the disease, and how humans are making it worse.

Where did the virus originate?

The Ebola virus was first identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976. It gets its name from the Ebola River, which is situated near the village where it was discovered.

Ebola is a "zoonotic" disease, meaning that the virus can spread easily between animals and humans, according to the WHO. Scientists believe it was initially present in wild animals living in tropical rainforests in equatorial Africa. Fruit bats have been identified as one of the main hosts as they can transmit the disease while remaining unaffected by it.

The disease spread to humans when they came into contact with blood or other bodily fluids from infected animals through hunting. 

Why is it so difficult to control? 

Ebola is highly infectious. It can be transmitted through bodily fluids, skin and other organs or through indirect contact with environments contaminated by the disease.

The disease can also have a long incubation period, lasting up to three weeks, which allows it to spread rapidly before diagnosis and quarantine can take place. Men who have been infected with the disease and recovered can still pass it on through sexual contact for up to seven weeks.

High population densities in the affected West African cities and the difficulty in regulating the movement of people across the region further compounds the problem.

How are humans making it worse? 

The consumption of bush meat is a significant contributing factor in West Africa, Mother Jones reports. Bush meat is often sold from roadside grills, and despite being banned in the Ivory Coast in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease, people continue to sell and consume it.

Traditional burial rituals, such as embalming, commonly practised in West African countries, involves direct contact with the body. Even where such customs have been banned or discouraged, relatives have risked transmitting the disease further by insisting on traditional burials.

Human activity in the region, particularly deforestation, mining and conflict all contribute to the destruction of rainforest and animal habitats and causes "people and animals to have more contact" than usual", says epidemiologist and Ebola expert Dr Jonathan Epstein.

In this way, "human activity is driving [infected] bats to find new habitats amongst human populations".

West Africa faces deadliest Ebola outbreak in history

3 July

Health ministers from across West Africa are meeting in Ghana to form a regional response to the Ebola outbreak that has killed almost 500 people.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed that this outbreak, which affects Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, is the deadliest and most aggressive in history.

The organisation says "drastic" action is needed to contain the spread of the virus.

"We’re hoping to take decisions about how to enhance collaboration and responses [of these countries] so we can get a grip and halt this outbreak," WHO spokesman Daniel Epstein told the BBC.

The disease is described as "a severe acute viral illness". It kills up to 90 per cent of those infected and is highly contagious, with no known vaccine or cure.

There are various challenges facing the containment of the disease. "In Liberia, our biggest challenge is denial, fear and panic. Our people are very much afraid of the disease," Bernice Dahn, Liberia’s deputy health minister, told Reuters at the meeting in Ghana.

Sierra Leone’s health minister says more money is needed to pay for drugs, medical staff, protective clothing and isolation centres to halt the spread of the disease.

The WHO sites three main reasons it has been so difficult to contain the spread of the disease: high population densities in the major cities affected, the difficulty in regulating the movement of people across the region and families insisting on traditional burials of victims which risk spreading the disease.

Medical charities in the region are also reporting attacks on foreigner aid workers, who some blame for the disease. "We are seeing an increasing level of hostility borne out of fear in some communities," said Dr Bart Janssens, director of operations for Médecins Sans Frontières.

Ebola outbreak: London Mining staff leave Sierra Leone

3 June

A number of staff from a British mining firm have left Sierra Leone following an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

London Mining said it was not aware of any incidences of the disease among its own workforce, but said it was monitoring the health of all of its employees and has imposed restrictions on travel in the region – which prompted "non-essential" staff to return home.

The BBC says London Mining is the first company to go public on an "evacuation" since 50 suspected cases of the incurable and highly contagious disease emerged in the west African country. Five people have died in Sierra Leone, while more than 100 people have died in neighbouring Guinea where the outbreak started. Cases have also been reported in Liberia.

Symptoms of Ebola, which first emerged in central Africa 20 years ago, include internal and external bleeding, diarrhoea and vomiting. The disease kills between 25 and 90 per cent of its victims.

It emerged last month that relatives of Ebola patients in Sierra Leone had been removing their loved ones from community health centres despite protests from medical staff.

The family of one woman said they had removed her from a clinic because they did not trust the medical system and feared she would die if a planned transfer to a general hospital went ahead.

BBC international development correspondent Mark Doyle said some families apparently wanted to have their loved ones treated by traditional African healers.

Amara Jambai, the Health Ministry's director of disease prevention and control, warned that those patients now risk infecting their family members and others in the community.

London Mining said in a statement: "A number of non-essential personnel have left the country due to voluntary restrictions on non-essential travel."

It said it has established "proactive health monitoring" of the workforce, including screening all staff and visitors entering its sites and ensuring its facility has the appropriate medication and equipment to manage any potential occurrences of the disease. It added that production at its Marampa mine is "not currently affected".

Ebola death toll passes 100 as disease spreads from Guinea

9 April

THE DEADLY Ebola outbreak in West Africa is one of the "most challenging" seen since the virus emerged four decades ago, the UN World Health Organisation (WHO) says.

More than 100 people have now died from the disease in Guinea, Liberia and Mali, and experts say that it may take up to four months to contain.

Guinea now has 157 suspected and confirmed cases of Ebola and 101 deaths. The virus has also spread across the border to Liberia where there are another 21 suspected and confirmed cases and 10 deaths.

So why is this outbreak so challenging? The BBC's global health reporter Tulip Mazumdar says that the virus's broad geographical spread is to blame.

Previously, much smaller areas have been affected. The last significant outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda in 2012 led to 60 deaths in total. Health officials were able to contain the spread of the virus in both cases because the outbreaks occurred in remote locations.

By comparison, the recent outbreak in Guinea has now spread to the capital of Conakry, which has a population of two million people, and across the border to Mali and Liberia.

"We fully expect to be engaged in this outbreak the next two to three to four months before we are comfortable that we are through it," Keiji Fukuda, assistant director-general of the World Health Organisation, said at a briefing in Geneva.

Saudi Arabia has suspended visas for Muslim pilgrims from Guinea and Liberia hoping to take part in the Hajj in October. Mali has also promised to tighten border controls.

The WHO describes Ebola as "a severe acute viral illness". Early symptoms include the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat, it adds. There is no known cure or vaccine for the virus. Medecins Sans Frontiers said that the current Zaire strain of Ebola was the most aggressive and most deadly it had ever seen, killing nine out of ten patients. 

Ebola virus: 'unprecedented' outbreak kills 78 in Guinea

1 April

SEVENTY-EIGHT people have died in an outbreak of the Ebola virus across Guinea that a medical charity describes as "unprecedented".

Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) said that the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus was the most aggressive and most deadly it had ever seen, killing nine out of ten patients, Al Jazeera reports.

"We are facing an epidemic of a magnitude never before seen in terms of the distribution of cases in the country: Gueckedou, Macenta Kissidougou, Nzerekore, and now Conakry," said Mariano Lugli, who is coordinating MSF's project in Conakry, the capital of Guinea.

Guinean health authorities report that to date there have been 78 deaths and 122 suspected patients. The virus is also believed to have spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, but so far no cases have been confirmed in either country.

On Saturday, Senegal announced that its border crossings to Guinea would be closed "until further notice".

Liberia's Health Minister Walter Gwenigale advised people to stop having sex, as the virus can be spread through bodily fluids, the BBC reports. People have also been recommended to stop kissing and shaking hands.

The WHO describes Ebola as "a severe acute viral illness". Early symptoms include the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat, it adds.

"This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. Laboratory findings include low white blood cell and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes." The virus is said to have a fatality rate of up to 90 per cent.

Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour cancelled his concert in Guinea over concerns that bringing large groups of people together could help the virus spread.

This is the first outbreak of Ebola in west Africa in two decades. Since it was discovered in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 1976, the virus has killed an estimated 1,500 people.  · 

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