For most of us in the United States, the Ebola virus that is ravaging West Africa seems far away.
Since March 21, Ebola has killed 632 people in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, according to the World Health Organization, making it the largest outbreak ever of the deadly virus.
For those of us in the medical community, the virus hit closer to home with the news this week that the chief doctor treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone himself became an Ebola patient; three nurses who work with him have died from Ebola this week. Although the
medical community has vowed to do everything it can to help him, the statistics are grim. The highly contagious virus kills up to 90 percent of those it infects.
Smaller outbreaks of Ebola have occurred since 1972, but they typically affected small groups of people living in remote villages near tropical rainforests in Central Africa. This Ebola outbreak, fueled by fear and civil war, is the first that has been reported in a capital city. Reports Thursday indicated a possible case in Lagos, Nigeria, population 21 million. It’s spreading faster than we’ve ever seen.
So imagine my reaction when a friend and former co-worker at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told me that he was being deployed to West Africa to help stop the outbreak.
“Feeling a bit overwhelmed with Ebola preparations,” he emailed. Overwhelmed with fear is what I felt. Just one week after the tragic loss of two friends who were on their way to an AIDS conference on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, I wasn’t ready to think about losing another friend.
There’s no treatment for Ebola. It kills you slowly and painfully, thickening the blood so that sticky lumps of blood cells block veins and arteries. When the clotting machinery is cruelly used up, blood runs like water through the body, leaking out of every cut and orifice. Organs, hungry for blood, shut down and die.
The best that doctors can offer is fluids and pain relief. “When an Ebola patient loses consciousness and bleeds copiously, there is no hope,” the humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders said in an emailed statement. “At this point, we ease the patient’s pain and accompany her or him until the end.”
Blood, sweat, vomit and breast milk have all been shown to spread the disease. Although my friend will be wearing two pairs of latex gloves, safety goggles, a surgical cap and a protective Tyvek suit that will be burned each time he leaves an Ebola isolation zone, chances are he’ll never be fully protected against the virus. It can creep through gaps in clothing and permeate the eyeballs, gums and cheeks of its victims.
The virus isn’t the only threat he’ll be watching out for. Those brave enough to fight at the front lines of this epidemic have had to contend with violence. Just last week, a team of aid workers burying Sierra Leoneans who had succumbed to the infection were attacked by locals who didn’t want the corpses buried in their community.
In Guinea, rocks were hurled at aid workers from Doctors Without Borders who were accused of bringing the disease into the country.
Distrust, misunderstanding and health care systems ruined by decades of civil war make fighting this deadly virus that much harder.
The challenges aren’t just in West Africa. They’re here in Texas, too. In a lab that he describes as “a box within a box within a box,” Ebola scientist Thomas Geisbert, at the University of Texas Medical Branch, has dedicated 23 years of his life to finding a cure for the disease. It seems to have paid off.
With a $26 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, his team has come up with a vaccine that works in monkeys. “We can completely protect monkeys with this vaccine with just a single shot,” he said.
But he’s frustrated.
“You look at this outbreak and the doctor [infected with Ebola] in Sierra Leone,” he said. “The people most at risk are the people who put their life on the line, and it would be great to vaccinate those people.”
The scientists have done their part. It’s up to policymakers and regulators to push the vaccine through the next step, which involves testing its safety in healthy human volunteers. That will be too far in the future to protect my friend and the many others at risk of Ebola in West Africa.
My friend will need a hefty dose of courage to face the outbreak each day. I hope he zips up that Tyvek suit extra tight.
Seema Yasmin, a physician and former disease detective at the Centers for Disease Control, is a staff writer for The Dallas Morning News and professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.