Millennium Post

Watch out for scary Ebola

An international health emergency has been sounded. The deadly Ebola virus is slowly spreading its tentacles. Though it is yet to enter India from West Africa, where it erupted recently, the government has set up the ‘most advanced surveillance and tracking system’.

The disease has claimed close to 1,000 lives in the latest epidemic to spread across West Africa this year. The world’s deadliest to date, Ebola virus disease (EVD), also known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is a severe, often fatal illness in humans. Its initial symptoms can include a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and a sore throat, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).  Its subsequent stages are vomiting, diarrhoea and, in some cases, both internal and external bleeding.

This rare but deadly Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan, and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.

The onset is sudden and the initial symptoms are unpleasant like flu. As the virus spreads through the body, it damages the immune system and organs. Ultimately, it causes levels of blood-clotting cells to drop. This leads to severe, uncontrollable bleeding inside and outside the body. The disease kills up to 90 percent of people who are infected. For every 10 people who get it, only one survives.

Ebola spreads through human-to-human transmission, with infection resulting from direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people; and indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids without wearing protective gears such as masks, gloves or goggles. Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the deceased person’ body can also play a role in the transmission of Ebola.

Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks after recovery from illness.

US-based researchers have found that AIDS and Ebola spread through the body using the same mechanism. But, Ebola has the capacity to kill more people than HIV, according to health reports. Some victims die just a few hours or days after being infected with the virus.

Moreover, HIV has a window period of around three months before the signs and symptoms start showing; but on the other hand, Ebola’s incubation period can be as low as two days. It may extend up to 21 days. This practically means that when two people are infected with the Ebola and HIV virus simultaneously, the Ebola patient is likely to test positive and start experiencing the effects even before the HIV patient tests positive.

HIV can be treated through the use of antiretroviral drugs. On the other hand, there is no available cure or vaccine for Ebola. The WHO has said Ebola vaccine will not be ready until 2015.  Clinical trials are to be rushed through trial process to help (to stem the epidemic) staunch the spread of the deadly virus. The trials will start in September. Till then, only stringent precautionary measures can save deaths.

This makes it even more difficult to prevent it using scientific methods. The only preventive method at the moment is by avoiding close contact with infected persons but this seems almost impossible in African countries where family unity is one of the most important aspects of society.

Ebola can spread from country to country when people travel. If the situation worsens, some or many may return home. So it is possible for it to reach the India, if an infected person travels here.

Nearly 45,000 Indians live in different countries affected by Ebola — with the largest, 40,000, being in Nigeria followed by 3,000 (including 300 CRPF personnel deployed for UN peacekeeping operations) in Liberia and 1,200 in Sierra Leone and 500 Indians in the Republic of Guinea.

India, which is on a high alert, needs to take stringent precautions against the virus. Being thickly populated, it is required to keep a close watch on travellers landing at airports and isolate those with symptoms akin to patients carrying the virus. Thus to avoid human contacts, symptomatic victims must be quarantined. The health minister told Parliament that there is no reported case in the country and no need to panic. The government has started a round-the-clock helpline.

However basic health-care practices, which are quite weak, need to be fortified. Immediate and continuous efforts must be made to educate health workers and particularly the public through messages for risk reduction and create awareness through public advocacy and media. Spitting, open defecation and other unhealthy and unhygienic practices, a scourge in this country, must be rigorously controlled.

The only preventive method is to avoid close contact with the infected. However, social and cultural practices and religious beliefs are deep-rooted here.  Hence, India needs to be very cautious as family unity is one of the most important aspects of our society, like in Africa.

The author is an independent journalist
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