Ebola: Origins of an African epidemic

THE most recent outbreak of Ebola is believed to have started with an infected toddler in Guinea, west Africa.
The Ebola virus. Picture: PAThe Ebola virus. Picture: PA
The Ebola virus. Picture: PA

In December 2013, the two-year-old suddenly became ill, with symptoms of vomiting and bleeding. Four days later, he died. The child’s mother also became ill with similar symptoms and died, followed by his sister and his grandmother.

More than twelve months later, the virus has affected almost 22,000 people and killed 8,690 in the biggest outbreak ever recorded.

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Outwith West Africa a few patients have died of the infection in a handful of countries including Spain, the US and Germany.

Miguel Pajares, 75 a Spanish missionary who contracted the Ebola virus while working in West Africa died in hospital in Madrid last August. And in October a UN medical employee infected with the Ebola virus while working in Liberia died in a hospital in Germany.

Fears have been raised that the spread of the disease is worse than official records show, after WHO officials recently discovered scores of bodies in a remote diamond-mining area of Sierra Leone.

It is believed that the virus, which first appeared in 1976 in simultaneous outbreaks in Nzara, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, begins in fruit bats. It is then introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelopes and porcupines found ill or dead or in the rainforest. Humans can also pick it up from other people who are infected through direct contact with bodily fluids. The fatality rate of all outbreaks is around 50 per cent. The survival rate in this outbreak has been far higher for western patients who have been transferred to hospitals in their home country, where treatment is better and experimental drugs are being used.

Stocks of a drug used earlier in the battle against the virus, ZMapp, are thought to have run out worldwide.

An experimental drug was used to treat Pauline Cafferkey, as well as plasma from the blood of another British patient who survived the illness, 29-year-old nurse William Pooley. He was infected while working in Sierra Leone and later made a full recovery. He has since returned to work in Sierra Leone, where doctors believe he is likely to have immunity to the virus.

The first batch of an experimental vaccine against Ebola were shipped to west Africa this week. It was initially tested on 200 healthy volunteers in the UK, US, Switzerland and Mali.