Health ministers from West African countries met in Ghana last week for emergency talks about the Ebola virus. The World Health Organization says the disease has killed more than 500 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone since February.
Hundreds more have been infected. Last Wednesday, WHO officials said there have been at least 50 new cases of Ebola in Liberia and Sierra Leone since July 3rd. They said that no new cases have been reported in Guinea in the past week. But the number of suspected cases and deaths continues to rise almost daily in Liberia and Sierra Leone.
As the meetings ended, a top United Nations health official said the Ebola outbreak could last several more months. But Keiji Fukuda was reported as saying that it is impossible to clearly predict how much farther the disease could spread.
Police and medical workers are on duty at security positions near the town of Kenema, Sierra Leone. Officials are forcing people to be tested for the Ebola virus. Some of those infected try to avoid being tested. They want their infection to remain a secret.
Peter Piot is the director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. He says this is the largest number of Ebola cases since the disease was first identified in the 1970s.
“The outbreak in West Africa is unprecedented in the history of Ebola outbreaks because it involves three countries, at least, capital cities, multiple sources -- and, and that will make it far more difficult to control.”
Ebola causes high body temperature and bleeding. Victims may experience vomiting -- the involuntary emptying of the stomach. They also may have diarrhea, the uncontrolled expulsion of body wastes.
The virus is spread through contact with the blood or other fluids of infected people.
Doctors say a lack of understanding about the disease is partly to blame for how fast it has spread. And largely-unguarded borders between the affected countries make it difficult to contain.
Shek Moar Khan works at the Kenema Government Hospital in Sierra Leone. He says families often bury Ebola victims in secret. He notes that when family members touch the body of the loved one, they may get infected themselves.
"By the time people are dead with the Ebola they are more infectious than all. So if they take care of their burial on their own, 10 more will be infected.”
In neighboring Liberia, Elizabeth Smith lies bleeding on a hospital bed. She is a health care worker. She became infected with the virus after caring for people who had it. Her coworkers are doing what they can to help, but she has just a 10 percent chance of survival.
Philip Azumah is the district health officer. He says Liberia cannot fight the disease alone.
“We are calling on the international community to come and support the ministry. Right now we can’t do it now. We need international support.”
But Peter Piot says communities need more than just medical help. He says they need to educate people about the disease and how to stop its spread.
“Fear of the virus and distrust of authorities and of the health system probably is as bad and as dangerous as the virus itself. And what I think is needed now is a massive information campaign -- but not just facts, but involving community leaders, the media, the local media, more than disease experts.”
Health workers bury the dead in the countryside without leaving markers with the names of the victims. The disease is so easily spread that the workers leave disinfectant every step of the way. The chemical liquid destroys bacteria. The workers’ protective clothing is buried along with the body.
The number of dead is rising. Medical workers say efforts to stop the Ebola virus have not been strong enough.