By Mick Krever, CNN
The scientist who discovered the Ebola virus said that a current outbreak of the deadly bug in West Africa, in which 467 people have died, is “unprecedented.”
“One, [this is] the first time in West Africa that we have such an outbreak,” Dr. Peter Piot told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour. “Secondly, it is the first time that three countries are involved. And thirdly it’s the first time that we have outbreaks in capitals, in capital cities.”
Doctors Without Borders warns that the outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia is now “out of control.” The number of cases is still spiking since it was first observed around the beginning of this year.
“With this strain of Ebola, you’ve got like a ninety percent chance of dying. That’s spectacular by any standard – one of the most lethal viruses that exist.”
And the way victims die is far from pleasant.
“Ebola virus infection starts with something that looks like the flu – headache, fever, maybe diarrhoea. But then you can develop very fast bleeding that’s uncontrollable, and that’s how people die.”
Easy to fight
There is no cure for Ebola, but in theory the disease should be easy to fight, Piot said.
“You need really close contact to become infected. So just being on the bus with someone with Ebola, that’s not a problem.”
Simple hygienic measures like washing with soap and water, not re-using syringes, and avoiding contact with infected corpses are sufficient to stop spread of the disease, Piot said.
“This is an epidemic of dysfunctional health systems.”
“Fear of the virus, and the lack of trust in government, in the health system, is as bad as the actual virus.”
What happens “is that a person is infected, is hospitalized, infects other patients and particularly health care workers.”
“They’re buried somewhere; around that funeral, people are infected when they touch the body, and so on. And then they get ill, and then they go somewhere else, and then they go to relatives in town, maybe because they hope to have better health care. That’s how it spreads.”
A ‘very big virus’
Piot was a young researcher at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp in the 1970s when they got a blood sample from a Belgian nun who had died in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo).
“The clinical diagnosis was yellow fever – and we were equipped to isolate the yellow fever virus. But then something completely different came out of it, and under the microscope it looked like – kind of a more like a wormlike structure.”
It was, he said, a “very big virus.” At the time, there was only one other virus “known to be of that shape,” Marburg Virus.
They shipped the sample off to the Centers for Disease Control in the U.S., who confirmed that it was indeed something completely new.
But forty years later, much is still unknown about Ebola.
“We are not one hundred percent sure where this virus comes from. Probably from some bat.”
“A lot of research has been done, but not enough. And as long as we don’t know where exactly this virus hides outside epidemics, then we can’t map where the risks are.”
The current outbreak is “already a mega-crisis,” Piot said.
“For me, this is a reason for a state of emergency, you know, in these countries.”
“You need a combination of nearly military type of control measures – isolation, quarantine of those who are the diseased – but also their relatives, to make sure that they’re not spreading the infection.”
“And, secondly, community mobilization. Information can save lives here.”
That was brought into sharp focus on Wednesday, when the Red Cross said that it would suspend operations in Guinea after some of its workers were threatened by men with knives.
“The fear of the virus and running away from health services, that contributes to perpetuate the spread of Ebola virus.”
Resistant viruses, ‘one of the biggest challenges’
Ebola, Piot said, does not appear to be morphing or evolving.
But many bacteria are, becoming immune to antibiotics, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced a new initiative Wednesday to try to tackle the problem.
“This is one of the biggest challenges of the future, and that is the possibility that some of the very banal bacterial infections will be untreatable,” Piot said.
“And then major surgery will become untreatable, people admitted to hospital will die from these infections. We already have some strains like that for tuberculosis.”
The solution is “more disciplined” prescription of antibiotics, curtailing the amount of antibiotics given to animals (which ends up in our food), and the development on new antibiotics.
“I think, now, because of the greater awareness, there is hope. But we’re running out of time.”