Monday, August 25, 2014

Ebola virus continues to stump medical science

The Ebola epidemic in several West African countries, ongoing since March, has been in and out of the news lately. I recently had to do a read-and-sign at work to “understand” the threat of the Ebola virus and how to avoid being infected by it—much like the “swine flu” of few years ago which never turned out to be the “epidemic” it was claimed to be. Nevertheless, the Ebola virus was and remains one of the most troubling diseases to arrive unexpectedly to terrorize the human race.

The Ebola virus was first identified in humans in 1976, which saw an outbreak in the Congo and Sudan, when 400 people died after being infected the virus; nearly 90 percent of those who were infected with the Ebola-Zaire strain died from it. Then the virus was particularly troubling to the world because of its mysterious appearance and the seeming impossibility of “curing” it—much as the world would view the AIDS virus in the 1980s. Deaths from the current outbreak number about 800, making it the deadliest outbreak by total number of deaths, although the 1976 outbreak saw a higher fatality rate per infection.

It is unknown for certain where the Ebola virus is “nurtured” before it infects humans, but it is believed that rodents, monkeys, bats and even pigs carry the virus without apparent ill effect. Once a human is infected, the active virus can spread through physical contact with others. Once an individual infected by the Ebola virus, the symptoms are rapid and devastating. Severe fever, bodily pain and headaches are common symptoms, soon after clots form in various internal organs, including the brain. This clotting forces blood into tightly restricted areas, eventually bursting capillaries and causing severe hemorrhaging. Other symptoms appear, such as vomiting, diarrhea and a rash that covers much of the skin; death is eventually caused by the excessive bleeding and other factor, from one to three weeks after the initial infection.

The Ebola virus has received a great of media attention in the past because there remains no known cure for the disease, although if contained in its initial stages the survival rate is high. It has been observed that a few people who work around infected pigs have developed an immunity to it. The question of why there is no treatment strategy directly tailored to Ebola has been asked by many. The answer is that the pharmaceutical industry apparently does not believe that there is enough money to be made in researching a cure for it, since the number of infected and the total death rate—on a continent far away—is “small.” Curing HIV and AIDS would not have been a “priority” in this country if there were no victims here. For this reason the medical establishment has focused more on control and quarantine measures to combat its spread.

It has been reported that there is great concern about the difficulty in convincing people in the infected regions of the necessity of isolating themselves from infected persons, particularly family members. Ignorance as to the nature of the disease and lack of education has been the cause of misinformation about the virus. While there has been some government effort to “educate” people of the danger, many in the effected region do not even believe that Ebola is a real disease, and ignore the warnings. Others blame foreign healthcare workers for spreading the disease, which in fact has been caused by insufficient quarantine measures. Families who chose to leave infected loved ones in their homes have not abided by rules stipulating that only health workers are to have direct access to patients, including their feeding. A parade of family and friends visit infected persons, to potentially spread the virus further afield.

Perhaps not surprisingly, there are those who go further, and blame the spread of infectious diseases in Africa like Ebola on the international drug and medical supply establishment, who see disease on the continent as a profit-making enterprise, and do little themselves to actually help prevent the spread of disease. I doubt that this is the intention (at least not out loud), but it interesting to note how little has changed concerning controlling the Ebola virus over the past 40 years. In the meantime, the organization “Doctors without Borders” proclaims that the current epidemic remains “out of control”—with death overtaking dozens of health care workers as well as from the population at large.

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