By Daniel Irmihaev
Ebola, the deadly virus that has killed thousands in various West African countries this year, has made its way into the United States. The first American diagnosed with the virus within our borders, confirmed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Texas Department of State Health Services on September 30, is a man by the name of Thomas Eric Duncan. Mr. Duncan, who flew in from Liberia on September 21 to visit family in Dallas, developed symptoms of the deadly disease on September 24. He was admitted to an isolation unit at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on September 28 and is currently in critical condition.
There have been several episodes of Ebola in Africa since 1976, but none match the current outbreak, which has infected over 7,000 people in several West African countries, namely Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, Senegal and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The total death toll of the virus during this outbreak is close to 3,500, a number that easily surpasses any previous Ebola outbreak death toll. This epidemic started early December 2013, when a two-year-old child from the village of Meliandou, Guinea, contracted the disease. The virus then spread to the child’s immediate family members. In mid-February 2014, the virus was contracted by a hospital worker who then spread it to other villages. Due to the poor public health systems throughout these West African countries, the disease spread substantially within months of the first recorded case. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia experienced the most cases and deaths from the disease to date.
What is Ebola? Ebola hemorrhagic fever, now known as Ebola, is a rare and fatal disease caused by infection with one of the five Ebola virus strains. Four out of the five virus species are known to infect humans: Ebola virus, Sudan virus, Taï Forest virus, and Bundibugyo virus. The fifth species, Reston virus, has infected nonhuman primates such as monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees. Researchers believe that the original hosts of the Ebola virus are fruit bats.
How easily does the virus spread? There are several stages that an individual infected with the virus experiences as it worsens. The earliest stage begins with an individual that is infected with Ebola, but doesn’t experience any symptoms of the disease yet. It can take up to 20 days for the disease to incubate, so someone in this early stage is very unlikely to infect others. Then there is the “Walking Sick” stage, in which an infected individual experiences some of the virus’ symptoms, such as fever, stomach pain, severe headache, vomiting, sore throat, and diarrhea. According to experts, Ebola is not an airborne virus, meaning it can’t spread through coughs or sneezes. The virus is mainly spread through bodily fluids such as saliva and semen, and therefore casual contact with someone in the “Walking Sick” stage is most likely not contagious. The most severe stage of Ebola is when an infected individual experiences extreme symptoms of the virus, such as emitting blood, vomit, and diarrhea. It is at this point when the virus is highly contagious because even a drop of dried blood from the ill patient can remain infected with the virus for over a week. A healthy individual can be infected with the virus through cuts in the skin, or from touching ones mouth, nose, or eyes. The corpse of an individual that had the virus is extremely contagious.
The first two Americans to test positive for the virus in West Africa were missionaries Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol. Both individuals contracted the disease in Liberia, were treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta in early August with the experimental drug ZMapp, and finally discharged on August 21. The third American was Dr. Rick Sacra, another missionary, who contracted the virus in Libera. Dr. Sacra was treated at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha on September 5 with the experimental drug TKM-Ebola, and was discharged on September 25. Thomas Eric Duncan was the fourth individual to come into contact with the virus in Liberia, but the first to be diagnosed with the virus within our borders. Approximately 48 people in Texas, all of which had some sort of encounter with Mr. Duncan, are at risk of exposure to Ebola. Ten of these individuals are considered at “higher risk” of contracting the virus and are being closely monitored. The fifth American, a freelance camera operator for NBC news by the name of Ashoka Mukpo, was flown into the United States, on October 6, after contracting the virus while working in Liberia. He is currently being treated at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Despite the increasing number of Ebola patients being treated within our borders, top federal health officials claim that the possibility of an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. is slim.