Worst outbreak of Ebola virus hits West Africa: Will it spread?

The worst outbreak of the Ebola virus in history has hit West Africa, and efforts to combat the illness are complicated by superstitions and traditional beliefs held by the residents of the affected nations and other factors, reports the Los Angeles Times.

The Ebola virus is spread through contact with bodily fluids. A disease that has no cure, the virus causes fever, headaches, severe diarrhea, vomiting and bleeding. It has been known to kill up to 90 percent of its victims.

“It’s a very mysterious and extremely frightening disease,” said Bart Janssens, the Brussels-based director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, in a phone interview Thursday. “It would create fear in any community.”

The recent outbreak  initially struck an area near the city of Gueckedou in Guinea, a major trading hub near the borders of Sierra Leone and Liberia. The virus spread rapidly to all three countries, killing 467 people in 759 known cases, according to figures released Monday by the World Health Organization (WHO).

According to WHO officials, the figures mean that the outbreak is the deadliest one in history; it is also unprecedented in its geographical spread. There were more than 60 outbreak sites, said Janssens.

Yet, foreign health care workers trying to stem the tide of of the illness are being met with hostility, resistance and threats of physical violence in areas severely impacted by the disease.

“A worrying issue is that because of the lack of understanding of the disease there’s a real problem in communities in southern Guinea with growing hostility towards any foreigners. And this is really due to a lack of effort to explain well enough the reality of the disease,” said Janssens.

Some communities are blaming emergence of the disease on medical staff, clad in alien-looking, full-body protection suits and masks, who have gone there to help. Other West African residents do not believe the disease exists at all, placing blame on curses or witchery when a loved one falls ill, according to the Times.

Traditional burial rites, such as washing the bodies of loved ones before they are buried, may also  spread the illness; yet the affected communities are reluctant to change their ways.

Health workers from the Red Cross were surrounded by a group of men with knives, threatened, and blamed for causing the virus. On Wednesday, The Red Cross announced it had been forced to suspend activities in southeast Guinea as a result of the incident.

Lack of resources to fight the illness, weak health systems in the affected countries and the point of origin being near a transport hub have compounded the health crisis. Containing the outbreaks is more difficult as infected people travel through the region to other areas, reports the LA Times.

On Wednesday and Thursday the WHO called a crisis meeting in Accra, Ghana with health officials from Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Officials from neighboring countries including Ghana, Mali, Ivory Coast, Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Democratic Republic of Congo, Senegal and Uganda and humanitarian agencies also attended.

Image: NIAID

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