As Ebola begins to spread to countries around the world, and the outbreak in West Africa continues to grow at an alarming rate, we break down what you need to know about the virus, how it’s transmitted and what you can do to help those suffering.
What Are the Symptoms and Effects?
The virus was first discovered in Africa (near the Ebola River) in the mid-’70s, but the recent outbreak in West Africa is the worst ever recorded. In the countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone—the nations most effected—there have been more than 8,000 documented cases and more than 4,000 deaths. The World Health Organization says that with the next two months, the region could see as many as 10,000 a week.
Outside West Africa, there have also been isolated cases in Europe and the United States. At least two healthcare workers in Texas became infected by the virus while treating a patient who had recently returned from Liberia and became ill. Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital has come under criticism for being unprepared to safely treat an Ebola patient, leading to the possible exposure of dozens of people.
The current outbreak of the virus is extremely dangerous with a fatality rate of at least 55 percent. Initial symptoms of infection—which don’t appear for anywhere from eight to 21 days—resemble many common illnesses (fever, upset stomach, aches and pains), but severe bleeding and organ failure can soon follow. Though there’s no vaccine, hospitals have offered some patients experimental drugs and “supportive care” (keeping them well hydrated and fed), which has helped in some cases.
Who Is Dr. Kent Brantly?
If you’ve followed headlines about the Ebola outbreak, you’ve likely seen the name Dr. Kent Brantly. The American 33-year-old physician was serving in Liberia with the Christian missions organization Samaritan’s Purse this summer when he first became infected with the virus. Brantly and another Christian missionary who’d been diagnosed with Ebola, Nancy Writebol, flew back to the United States for treatment and eventually recovered.
Since then, Dr. Brantly has not only been vocal about how badly victims need our help, he’s also continued to assist people suffering. Brantly has donated his plasma—which is seen as a potentially life-saving treatment—to the NBC cameraman who became infected, a fellow missionary doctor with Ebola and the young nurse, Texas Christian graduate Nina Pham, who became infected while treating the first person in the United States to have the disease (Thomas Eric Duncan, who recently died of Ebola).
How Hard Is It to Catch?
Because it is not airborne, unless you’ve come into direct contact with someone who is suffering from Ebola—or in contact with infected bodily fluids like in a hospital or restroom—you can’t catch the virus. And, because Ebola has a weeks-long incubation period, until an individual is actually experiencing symptoms, they aren’t contagious.
Though medical workers who’ve become infected were wearing gloves and masks, the virus is highly concentrated in bodily fluids, so even removing the protective materials incorrectly is a risk for infection.
Two healthcare workers in Dallas who treated Duncan have tested positive for the virus, and 76 other hospital workers are being monitored, in addition to the 48 people Duncan came into contact with before he was hospitalized. There have been numerous reports that Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital was unprepared and unequipped to deal with an Ebola patient, whereas Emory University Hospital in Atlanta and Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha have been training to treat the Ebola virus for years.
However, because the spread of the disease is limited to direct physical contact with the bodily fluids of an infected individual, experts say an outbreak in the U.S. is unlikely.
What Is Being Done to Stop It, and How Can We Help?
The toll of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been devastating, killing thousands and leaving countless children orphaned. But, the world has finally taken notice. The U.S. recently committed $750 million to fight the disease in West Africa, and is sending 4,000 military personnel to the region to assist in medical operations. Other countries around the world are also sending aid.
Missions organizations, NGOs and even private donors—including Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who are giving $25 million to the CDC—are actively fighting the spread of the disease and helping victims.
We recently spoke with Mike Mantel, the CEO of Living Water International, who outlined ways the organization is connecting with local churches in West Africa to educate the public and provide sanitation resources.
You can also help. Organizations including World Vision, Living Water, Samaritans Purse, SIM and others on the ground are serving victims and equipping the public. They, along with many other organizations, are actively seeking support to help the people most affected by the virus.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.