Why this Ebola Outbreak Has the World Health Organization Worried

The World Health Organization updated reporters today on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. There are now over 175 cases, resulting in 111 deaths across two countries.

“This is one of the most challenging Ebola outbreaks we have ever faced,” said Dr. Keiji Fukuda of the WHO.

Several factors make this a particularly difficult outbreak to counter.

The first is the geographic spread of the outbreak. Typically, Ebola outbreaks are localized, and do not spread beyond the rural communities in which they originate. This time, the outbreak has spread from a rural area in Guinea to the capitol city Conakry and to neighboring Liberia. This is the first time that the WHO and parters like the CDC, MSF and Institute Pasteur have tried to counter an Ebola outbreak in a large city. There are also reports of cases that the WHO and partners are investigating in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Mali.

Another complicating factor is that this region has never experienced an Ebola outbreak before. The national health systems of Guinea and Liberia have never had to respond to Ebola; health workers are generally unfamiliar with Ebola and how it spreads (which is by coming in contact with bodily fluids of infected people).

Ebola is particularly frightening because of the incredibly high mortality rates. Between 80 and 90% of people who are infected succumb to the disease. Countering rumors and providing timely epidemiological updates is a key part of the outbreak response.”The outbreaks are part a disease and part the anxiety and fear they generate,” says Dr. Fukuda. \

Ebola is not an exceedingly difficult disease to contain in the sense that it is relatively difficult to transmit. But stopping an Ebola outbreak requires a public health system that can identify cases, trace those who have come in contact with infected people and take measures to prevent further transmission, particularly in burials and at health care facilities. Because of the relative weakness of the national health system of Guinea and Liberia international intervention is key to preventing the further spread of this disease. The WHO says it has deployed about 50 staff to work with national authorities and NGOs like MSF.

“The numbers change everyday,” said Dr Stéphane Hugonnet a Medical officer at the WHO who had just returned from Guinea. “Clearly this is an international outbreak with two countries and a risk that other countries might be affected.”


Image credit: United Nations