Ebola is no longer “an extraordinary health event” and the risk of the virus spreading is low, the World Health Organization has said in March 2016. It would seem from this statement that the Ebola crisis is over – for now.
The BBC recently reported that the disease is not thought to be a significant public health threat to countries outside of those affected in West Africa.
The story reported that Sierra Leone and Liberia, the original sources of the outbreak, had not had any new cases of the virus in months.
However, because of the viral nature of Ebola, experts say we must always be vigilant about new outbreaks of the disease.
History of Ebola
The Centre For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) tells how, since 1976 there have been 32 separate outbreaks of the virus worldwide. The latest outbreak in West Africa is the most serious and deadly there has been in modern times – there have been 27,000 cases and 11,000 deaths since 2014 in West Africa due to Ebola.
The previous most serious outbreak before 2014 was the first outbreak of the virus in Zaire, Africa in 1976 where 280 people died. In that year, a young Belgian scientist called Peter Piot discovered the deadly virus after a thermos flask with a vial of blood was sent to him from a region suffering from the terrible illness.
Piot put the blood under the microscope and saw the virus close up. It is thought that the virus originated from animals, and came to humans after contact with dead animals.
Once Piot had identified the new virus, the scientific community was set to start work on a vaccine or cure. This work is still ongoing today.
After his pioneering work on Ebola, Piot went on to do significant research on the AIDS virus.
How is the virus spread?
Ebola spreads by human and fluid contact (blood, saliva or vomit) or through surfaces (bedding, clothes), infected by these materials.
There is some evidence that the virus can be carried by semen, so precautions are still being taken in West Africa to eliminate this channel of infection. (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/)
There have been a few cases in the UK since the outbreak 2 years ago, but these have been contained by the medical services. NHS Choices says that the risk of an outbreak in the UK is now very low - http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/ebola-virus/Pages/Ebola-virus.aspx#UK.
How was the virus contained?
The WHO says that: “Community engagement is key to successfully controlling outbreaks. Good outbreak control relies on applying a package of interventions, namely case management, surveillance and contact tracing, a good laboratory service, safe burials and social mobilisation.”
What is the future of Ebola?
The World Health Organisation said recently that just because this current outbreak of Ebola is under control, it doesn’t mean we should be complacent about future outbreaks
Ebola is a deadly and highly infectious disease, and has shown with the West Africa outbreak that it can infect and kill thousands if swift action is not taken to deal with it.
There were complaints from certain quarters that the international response to the outbreak was too slow – Peter Piot himself said in 2014 that “it took 1,000 dead Africans before they did anything” (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2858719/It-took-1-000-dead-Africans-did-Scientist-discovered-Ebola-virus-slams-taking-FIVE-months-declare-state-emergency.html) He went on to criticise the WHO for taking 5 months to declare a state of emergency.
So we need to be vigilant, and perhaps react quicker as an international community to such outbreaks than we have in the past.
The healthcare staff who have directly dealt with this outbreak, however, must be congratulated. They have worked tirelessly, in dangerous conditions, to combat this threat. We must
count them perhaps our main source of thanks, and hope for the future.
For now, we are safe from this terrible viral threat.