Monday, December 01, 2014

What do you know about Ebola?

The most recent Ebola outbreak has gained international attention and aroused much fear due to the severity and ease of contraction of the virus.  The infection and mortality rates in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone are startlingly high and have caused immense stress not only on the health care system but also on the social and economic health of the countries. 

Ebola virus graphic, courtesy of the Center for Disease Control
The virus can be contracted through contact with blood, secretions, organs, and other bodily fluids of someone who has been infected, alive or deceased, as well as materials these fluids have contacted.  In the principally affected countries, women are at higher risk of contraction due to the cultural and societal expectations of caring for the sick and dead.  Despite having contact with infected people, people may not realize they are infected until treatment is ineffective due to the late onset of symptoms and denial.  

The primary indications of contraction are similar to other diseases: fever, headache, and muscle pain; in later stages vomiting, stomach pain, and unexpected bleeding and bruising are common.  The basic screening method is fever detection, but the accuracy is not reliable because the onset of symptoms after infection is anywhere between 2 and 21 days.  Because of the delayed onset and the tendency for people to lie about their activities and whereabouts during a trip to a country with high prevalence of the virus, airport screenings have been minimally effective in preventing the spread of Ebola to other countries. 

Prevention is as simple as avoiding contact with infected people and spaces, but this can prove to be incredibly difficult when the prevalence is high and people do not know they are infected.  This also causes stigma against people who were infected and have recovered; family, friends, and neighbors do not want to come into contact with them. 

Fear of contraction has also led to economic disruption: people are not leaving their homes to work or purchase goods, which has severely affected the national economies in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.  In addition, closed borders and abandoned farms are driving up food costs, limiting access to food for people in rural areas in particular and leading to potential starvation.  Exports have also been largely halted, adding stress to the depletion of the economy by the priority for emergency funding.  

The educational systems have also been severely affected; schools have been closed, compounding an already stressed system especially for girls who only more recently started attending school.  Further delay of progress may lead to even higher dropout rates and may cause literacy rates to decline. 

Despite the widespread and disastrous effects of Ebola, a vaccine is still in the developing phases.  It has taken a “crisis”, and one that affects many more countries, to push scientists and their financial supporters to explore drugs and vaccines for the virus. 

International aid has been steady since the outbreak became serious, but it raises many concerns.  By sending money and doctors, foreigners are upholding the power dynamic already present in the post-colonial (neocolonial) countries.  While aid is necessary to support the limited resources of the affected countries health care systems, Western medicine is upheld as superior and essential for progress.

The Ebola outbreak has caused international discussion and action, and will hopefully be resolved in a way that will benefit the people and countries most severely affected.
Contributed by:  Carmen Azevedo, Science Library Student Reference Assistant

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