The War on Ebola
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
By Dasha Asienga, Copy Editor
Ebola: one of the deadliest viruses known to medical science, it’s a rare disease in people and nonhuman primates, discovered in 1976 near the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s mainly located in sub-Saharan Africa and scientists generally agree that the West African fruit bat is the virus’s natural host. Symptoms include fevers, severe headaches, muscle aches, fatigue, diarrhoea, vomiting, and abdominal (stomach) pain. Notably, these symptoms resemble those of the flu, malaria, and cholera. The only symptom that distinguishes it from the three aforementioned diseases is that of unexplained bleeding through the eyes, nose, mouth, anus, and nipples, which occurs towards the later stages of the disease. Side effects after recovery also include exhaustion, muscle aches, eye and vision problems, and stomach aches. The virus spreads and kills fast. Transmission can occur through direct contact of bodily fluids with an infected animal or person with Ebola as well as sexual contact or sharing of contaminated needles and syringes. Additionally, the disease can’t be detected until symptoms begin to show, which usually takes an average of about eight days (Note that the symptoms are then often mistaken for other diseases until unexplained bleeding begins). Due to the initially subtle nature of the virus, it can spread exponentially, as seen in the 2014 pandemic in West Africa — the deadliest thus far — which began with a single two-year-old boy and claimed 11,000 lives out of the 29,000 cases reported.
There is currently no approved vaccine or treatment for Ebola, and mortality rates are up to 90%. However, scientists have been conducting intensive research and clinical trials to test for remedies in an attempt to combat the virus. A prime example of a modern advancement is the recent incorporation of an antimalarial drug. Antimalarial drugs usually work by preventing the malarial parasite from digesting food in the red blood cells, causing it to eventually starve to death. The Ebola virus usually mimics food, causing the cell to develop a tendency to swallow it, upon which the virus begins replicating its DNA. In addition, the drug interferes with normal cell digestion so that the cell doesn’t swallow anything for a short period of time. This is an example of an interesting technique that has been developed, given that malaria is another type of a deadly illness found primarily in sub-Saharan Africa. Those who have used antimalarial drugs so far were 31% less likely to die. Furthermore, as of last year, scientists began a clinical trial in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Mali to evaluate three Ebola vaccination strategies. Basic interventions to increase chances of survival also include offering oxygen therapy to maintain oxygen status, using medication to support blood pressure, reducing diarrhoea and vomiting, managing fever and pain, and treating other infections if they occur. In addition, other scientists are trying to manipulate Ebola’s replication cycle to stop spread of the virus’s DNA. So far, the various treatment and vaccination methods that scientists have been researching have shown promising results, and those who recover develop antibodies that can last up to 10 years.
Still, a lot of important questions remain unanswered. With the speculation of the West African fruit bat as the natural host of the virus, scientists need to study them further to understand exactly how outbreaks happen and can be prevented without entirely exterminating the species. Additionally, more data is needed from pregnant women, children, and immunocompromised populations, including those with HIV and the elderly. More research also needs to be done on determining the best vaccination approach that results in a long-lasting and quick response against the virus. Perhaps the most difficult facet of this investigation, though, is determining which variables correspond to the success of a vaccine. Finally, large-scale trials and evaluations are needed to ensure the accuracy of results.
Many may assume that exterminating the West African fruit bat may be the final key to ending Ebola; however, studies have shown that efforts to remove wildlife populations may result in increased spread of the virus. Bats play a critical role in the ecosystem because they remove pest animal species and pollinate fruiting trees. The finding of the bat as the virus’s natural reservoir should, therefore, not be taken as a reason to exterminate them.
By drawing an Ebola family tree, scientists discovered that spread mainly occurs through short-distance traveling within affected areas. Therefore, when in an area affected by Ebola, it is important to avoid contact with bodily fluids or items that may have come into contact with an infected/unknown person’s bodily fluids. Additionally, you should avoid contact with bats or nonhuman primates, meat prepared from such animals, or meat from an unknown source.
Nevertheless, the advances that have already been made are indeed promising. Improving global capacity and forming collaborative partnerships will definitely be crucial for success in the long run. The international community needs to stand with the affected countries and aid in research. Let’s fight and win the war on Ebola!