More than a dozen people are reported dead in western Uganda this week after being infected with the Ebola virus, a highly contagious and often fatal pathogen that has struck this region of Africa several times in the past 12 years. International medical workers are on the scene trying to contain the outbreak.
The latest outbreak in Uganda is being caused by the so-called Sudan strain of Ebola, one of five varieties of a virus that, officials say, typically kills between 50 and 90 percent of its victims.
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The disease is spread through direct contact with the blood, saliva, sweat or other bodily fluids of sick individuals. Handling the corpses of those who have died from the disease can also spread infection, which is why health officials are urging people not to bury Ebola victims, but to leave that task to trained medical personnel.
Tarik Jasarevic is a spokesman for the World Health Organization or WHO. Although the pathogen is extremely aggressive and easily transmitted, Jasarevic says it can be contained by testing people suspected of being infected with Ebola virus, placing the sick in quarantine and seeking out those with whom they may have had contact.
“It is because to stop the transmission chain, that we need to find those people and make sure that they are not infected in the near term and, if they are, they are treated in an appropriate way,” Jasarevic said.
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WHO and health care workers from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control are helping Ugandan officials determine the scope of the outbreak, tend to the sick and communicate with members of the public about how to protect themselves from infection.
Ebola's average incubation period is between two and 12 days. Symptoms include a sudden onset of fever, extreme weakness and muscle aches. Vomiting and diarrhea may occur and, in rare case of so-called Ebola hemorrhagic fever, patients suffer from internal and external bleeding.
Currently, there is no cure for Ebola, nor are there any specific treatments. Patients who have been sickened but not killed by the virus usually need intensive rehydration therapy during their recovery. But researchers are homing in on a vaccine. U.S. government scientists have developed an experimental vaccine that protects monkeys against the two most lethal Ebola strains.
And scientists at Fort Dietrick, Maryland, have also reported progress on a possible cure that targets Ebola's genetic material and prevents the viral cells from reproducing. After a week of injections, four rhesus monkeys infected with Ebola were cured of their infection. The experimental treatment has yet to be tested and approved for use in humans.
First identified in 1976, the Ebola virus has appeared most often in tropical Africa. While the precise source of Ebola is not known, Jasarevic says health experts suspect that wild bats transmit the virus to other forest animals such as monkeys and antelope, which are frequently killed for meat.
“And hunters who go into [the] forest and kill the animal and eat the animal and get infected. And… once the virus enters a human, then it is being transmitted human to human,” Jasarevic said.
The worst Ebola outbreak in Uganda occurred in 2000, when the disease claimed the lives of 224 people.