In the DRC, in Western Kasai Province, health officials are trying to contain an Ebola outbreak. The World Health Organization says of 42 patients, five cases of Ebola have been confirmed ,12 others are probable cases and 25 more are suspected cases of Ebola.
Gregory Hertl, WHO spokesperson for epidemic and pandemic diseases, spoke from Geneva to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about how hard it is to diagnose a case of Ebola.
“Certainly, on the ground, when you’re there in the middle in the jungle or a very isolated location, there are many diseases which are endemic in that part of the world. It is difficult to make a snap and accurate diagnosis of something being Ebola. Certainly, also, in the early phases of the disease, there are actually many diseases which have similar presentation…which is basically a spike in fever, plus vomiting and diarrhea. It’s only in the later stages of Ebola do you start to see the tell-tale hemorrhagic symptoms – bleeding,” he says.
Hertl says that the first response when a suspected Ebola outbreak is reported is to get health professionals “on the ground.” But that’s not always easy to do right away. He says, “Unfortunately, many of these outbreaks occur in extremely remote locations where very few people have access. So it takes a while to get people on the ground. But if we had people on the ground at the start of this, we would want to isolate suspected cases so that there was no possibility of transmitting the disease onward. We would want to institute proper…infection control procedures in hospitals so that no hospital workers were infected. We would want to do a laboratory testing to confirm that this was indeed Ebola.”
The WHO spokesperson says that the WHO and others would also work with the communities to make sure they understand what Ebola is and “what measures they need to take in order to not contract Ebola themselves and to stop the disease from spreading further.”
There’s no treatment for Ebola. Hertl says, “There’s no anti-viral medication. There’s no vaccine that one can be given beforehand. So, all you can do is hope that the body’s defenses will fight off the virus. And we know that unfortunately the virus can kill…up to 90 percent of the people it infects.”
It’s not only deadly, it’s easily transmissible. “They can’t even touch someone else because the virus is transmissible even by the touch of the skin,” he says.
It’s been difficult to pinpoint the source of Ebola in the bush or jungle. Hertl says, “It might come from contaminated bushmeat, but we’ve also seen other routes of transmission, certainly, even more so, more plainly, with Marburg (virus). Because Marburg, which is a very close cousin of Ebola, also can be transmitted by bats. If bats urinate on fruit, which is then eaten…or you come in contact with bat feces through one means or another, then the disease can also be transmitted that way. But certainly, yes, one of the first ways that we saw Ebola being transmitted was through bushmeat,” he says.
It’s difficult to educate communities in the bush to avoid the disease, due to its very nature of transmission. “What you really only can do is try to help them, often times after the fact, understand what can be done in order not to transmit it further, not to endanger the family, loved ones, community,” he says.
In areas where there have been previous outbreaks, communities often know what Ebola is and what steps to take to prevent its spread. “But in any time that Ebola first surfaces in an area which has never had it before, that’s a big issue,” he says.