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Tue April 8, 2014
Shots - Health News

The Ebola Outbreak 3 Weeks In: Dire But Not Hopeless

Originally published on Mon April 28, 2014 9:15 pm

Guinea is on high alert. At the international airport, travelers' temperatures are monitored for signs of infection. In the capital city of Conakry, people rarely shake hands and are advised to regularly wash their hands with bleach-diluted water.

This is what life is like nearly three weeks after an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus.

The World Health Organization has confirmed 157 cases in Guinea, with 101 deaths. Neighboring Liberia has 21 reported cases and 10 deaths. Suspected cases also are being monitored in Sierra Leone and Mali.

WHO described the Ebola outbreak in Guinea as one of the most challenging in the history of the disease because the virus has crossed borders and is in a large capital city, home to 2 million people. What's more, it's the virulent "Zaire" strain.

There's a lot of fear in Guinea, notes Stéphane Hugonnet, with the WHO Department of Global Preparedness, Surveillance and Response. Hugonnet, who returned to Geneva from southeast Guinea this weekend, says in every Ebola outbreak it's difficult to convince sick people to enter isolation units at a health center.

"The mortality rate is extremely important," Hugonnet says. "Nine out of 10 patients will die. If we look at this from the population's perspective, why would you go to a hospital if you have almost a zero chance of getting out of it."

But, he stresses, isolating Ebola victims is one of the most important tactics to stop the spread of the virus.

Guinea's health minister, Remy Lamah, has implored Guineans to remain calm and to ignore rumors that foreign health workers brought Ebola to Guinea. Misinformation is a mighty problem, he says. The virus can be transmitted to humans from wild animals, including fruit bats and monkeys – both of which are culinary delicacies in some parts of Guinea.

Direct human contact with another person's sweat, blood, feces and other bodily fluids, as well as the unprotected handling of infected corpses, can also lead to infection.

Local media are giving blanket coverage to the outbreak. A radio debate included medical personnel, ministers, and ordinary people – as well as one survivor.

"Not everyone dies of Ebola," says Aissata Diallo, a 20-year-old hygienist who has been assisting at a hospital where the international medical charity Doctors Without Borders treats patients. "Yes, of course it's contagious. But there are cases where people get well and go home. That's wonderful. And that makes us happy that people are leaving here alive."

WHO, meanwhile, expects to remain in Guinea for some time.

"Our expectation is that we'll continue to see cases for some number of months," says Assistant Director-General Keiji Fukuda. "Because we are dealing with Ebola, what we typically do is look and make sure that we go through a couple of incubation periods to see if the outbreak is really over."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

It's been nearly three weeks since an outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus was reported in West Africa. The World Health Organization says, as of today, 157 cases have been confirmed in Guinea; 101 people have died. Neighboring Liberia has 21 reported cases and 10 deaths. Suspected Ebola cases also are being monitored in Sierra Leone and Mali.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton has this report from Guinea's capital.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Health officials are on high alert. At the international airport, travelers' temperatures are monitored for signs of infection. In Conakry, concern is mounting. People rarely shake hands now and they're being advised to regularly wash their hands with bleach-diluted water. At the main Donka teaching hospital in the city, the international medical charity MSF, Doctors Without Borders, have set up an Ebola treatment centre with an isolation unit.

REMY LAMAH: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Visiting the facility is Guinea's health minister, Remy Lamah. He spoke to NPR days after an attack on a similar treatment center in Macenta in the southeast where Ebola was first detected.

No Doctors Without Borders staff member was injured, but the fear factor among the public about the deadly hemorrhagic disease is intense.

LAMAH: (Speaking foreign language)

QUIST-ARCTON: The health minister says there are no taboos and he's imploring Guineans to remain calm and not to listen to rumors that foreign health workers brought Ebola to Guinea. Lamah says misinformation is a mighty problem. The virus can be transmitted to humans from wild animals, including fruit bats and monkeys, both of which are culinary delicacies in some parts of Guinea.

Direct human contact with another person's sweat, blood, feces and other bodily fluids, as well as the unprotected handling of infected corpses, can also lead to infection. Spokesman for Doctors Without Borders in Guinea Sam Taylor says they're working with local authorities and hope to restart operations soon in Macenta.

SAM TAYLOR: We're still housed in Macenta. We have our head of mission negotiating with the authorities down there, the health authorities, to try and get access as soon as we can, but our access have been suspended. But the most important thing is that the patients are still there who are positive for Ebola and they're being cared for.

QUIST-ARCTON: Local media are giving blanket coverage to the Ebola outbreak. A radio debate today included health experts, ministers, civil society and ordinary people, as well as one survivor. Here, at the Doctors Without Borders treatment center in Conakry, a number of patients have been discharged.

20-year-old hygienist, Aissata Diallo, is assisting the emergency agency. She acknowledges there's still a long way to go. But while the majority of patients who contract Ebola die, she says she is delighted to see some patients recovering and going home.

AISSATA DIALLO: (Through interpreter) Yes, people leave this facility alive. Not everyone dies from Ebola. Yes, of course it's contagious. But there are cases where people get well and go home. That's wonderful. And that makes us happy that people are leaving here alive.

QUIST-ARCTON: Today, the World Health Organization described the Ebola outbreak in Guinea as one of the most challenging because it had crossed borders and is in a large capital city home to 2 million people. Guinea is battling the most virulent Zaire strain of the virus. WHO assistant director-general Keiji Fukuda says they will probably remain in Guinea for some time.

KEIJI FUKUDA: Our expectation is that we will continue to see cases for some number of months and then, because we are dealing with Ebola, what we typically try to do is look and make sure that we go through a couple of incubation periods to see whether the outbreak is really over.

QUIST-ARCTON: Diallo, the hygienist, says it's critical for everyone to remember that Ebola sufferers and those helping them are all human beings so humanity is key during the outbreak. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Conakry. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.