CWRU researchers discuss Ebola epidemic

Adithi Iyengar, Staff Reporter

In December of 2013, a young girl in Guinea became the first reported case of the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus, a disease causing high fever, internal bleeding and, in many cases, death. The disease has since spread throughout West Africa, killing thousands and resulting in a global discussion about the dangers of infectious disease.

On Sept. 10, CWRU hosted a talk on the outbreak, discussing efforts to treat and prevent the spread of the disease.

“Ebola is one of the most virulent pathogens known to humans,” said Dr. Christopher L. King, professor of International Health, Medicine and Pathology.

Ebola is spread through fluids, including saliva and blood, but it is not airborne. Once the virus enters the body, it invades a cell, taking over its functions by replacing the RNA. The cell then multiplies, spreading the virus throughout the body.

The incubation period for the virus is between two and 21 days. In a typical case, patients start to experience headaches, fatigue, fever and muscle soreness around day seven to nine, and high fever and vomiting of blood around day 10. On day 11, the virus starts to cause brain damage and bleeding from other bodily orifices. On day 12, patients experience loss of consciousness, seizures and death.

Originally, there was a 90 percent death rate from the disease, but, with today’s treatment methods, which include providing electrolytes and fluids, the death rate has decreased to 50 percent.

As the population increases and areas become more densely populated, it becomes easier for disease to spread, said Dr. James M. Kazura, professor of International Health, Medicine and Pathology. He said that increased ease of transportation also contributes.

To come up with strategies that can prevent the spreading of the virus, researchers are studying other viral outbreaks, like the SARS coronavirus. Public health measures such as promoting good hygiene and quarantining and treating the sick have had some success, but they are not entirely able to stop the spread.

One of the hardest parts of containing the disease is getting the whole community to work together. Since infected individuals can still be contagious for three to four days after death, communities have to change burial rituals in order to prevent the spread of the infection, something that many cultures and religions do not approve of.

Another issue is the lack of resources in dealing with the outbreak. As the infected population increased by about 500 new cases a week, hospitals needed more beds and treatment facilities immediately. The quick spread has led to a shortage of supplies and staff.

This shortage has been aggravated by healthcare worker strikes in Liberia and Sierra Leone. With more than 240 workers infected and 120 deaths, many don’t want to take the risk of contracting the virus.

With the staff spread so thin, treatment for other health care issues has fallen to the wayside, leading to even more problems in affected countries.

Although Ebola is extremely dangerous, it does spread less quickly than most viral diseases like measles, for which around 15 to 20 people are infected per patient. In contrast, an average of 1.5 people are infected for each Ebola patient.

However, the Zaire strain is stronger than any strain that researchers have seen before, and while new drugs and vaccines are in development, nothing has been found that really works. Even if a successful treatment was found, it’s extremely difficult to bring to low-income neighborhoods due to poverty, inadequate medical infrastructure and lack of proper nutrition.

The outbreak also has political consequences, with political unrest and instability increasing in highly infected areas. Sierra Leone, the Ivory Coast and Senegal have all closed their borders to prevent movement in and out in an attempt to curb the outbreak.

The three speakers, Kazura, King and Dr. Ronald Blanton, professor of International Health and Epidemiology and Biostatistics, stressed that for prevention measures to work, there has to be cooperation from infected and uninfected people, as well as increased resources for prevention and treatment.