By | Updated July 31, 2014

It’s one of the deadliest diseases on Earth, with a fatality rate as high as 90 percent. It’s also grotesque, sometimes causing bleeding from the eyes, ears, mouth and rectum and a bloody full-body rash leading to a quick demise. Ebola virus disease fascinates worldwide though its spread has been limited to sporadic epidemics in Africa. It’s one of a handful of diseases that are so deadly that governments consider it a threat to national security. Each wave of new cases raises questions about what can be done for its victims, how to prevent public panic and the best way to protect against the virus.

The Situation

The worst Ebola outbreak on record began in March and is now centered in the area where Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea meet. The death toll climbed to 729 by July 27. Nigeria had its first death after an infected Liberian man flew to Lagos, Africa’s largest city. This wave of Ebola was different  from earlier ones because it’s the first in West Africa — which has an acute shortage of doctors — and it has spread quickly from small towns. The disease is being transmitted by vicitims who are avoiding hospitals because of stigma and fear, as well as unsafe burial practices where people come in close contact with the corpse. Efforts to contain the outbreak are hampered by a lack of supplies, along with hostility to medical workers and growing civil unrest. International aid groups including  Doctors Without Borders have set up isolation units and equipped specialist teams with biohazard suits. Ebola jumps to humans from infected animals that live in the rainforest through contact with blood and other secretions from animals like chimpanzees, gorillas and bats. It spreads among humans the same way. With the current strain of Ebola, sick people begin to erupt with symptoms four to six days after exposure. Liberia began to quarantine villages at the end of July, shutting schools and markets. Guinea and Cameroon have banned the sale and eating of bats. Governments around the world are on high alert and travelers were checked at borders and airports for signs of the disease. The World Health Organization and several West African nations said on July 31 that they would pump in $100 million to hire more health workers and intensify other Ebola-fighting efforts.

The Background

Researchers think fruit bats are the most likely host of Ebola, which was first identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Outbreaks have also been reported in Congo Republic, Uganda and Sudan and are typically contained within a few months. Prior to the current wave, a total of 2,387 cases had led to 1,590 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. There are no drugs or vaccines approved to treat or prevent Ebola. The rarity of the disease and its prevalence in rural areas of poor African nations doesn’t provide enough incentive for big drugmakers to tackle the virus. Instead, smaller biotechnology firms and government-funded labs have taken up the challenge. The quick and horrible death of Ebola victims and the potential threat of an epidemic was captured in the 1994 best-selling non-fiction thriller “The Hot Zone.” It’s also considered a possible vehicle for terrorism. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists the virus as a Category A bioterrorism agent, alongside anthrax and smallpox, compelling an expensive search for remedies.

The Argument

Ebola doesn’t travel through the air, making it harder to transmit than other pathogens, such as influenza, as long as adequate health-care practices are followed. Other diseases kill many more people. Influenza kills up to half a million people a year around the globe, and resurgent diseases such as tuberculosis and the growth of antibiotic resistance are a bigger focus for global public health organizations. While Ebola is unlikely to leave Africa, the stigma and fear associated with it can prompt people to flee to hospitals outside the affected area, spreading the disease across borders and around the continent. That panic leads governments to impose travel and trade restrictions on the affected countries each time Ebola emerges from the forest.

The Reference Shelf

  • Read fact sheets on Ebola at the Centers for Disease Control and Infection (CDC), World Health Organization (WHO), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
  • A Bloomberg News article on treatments in development for Ebola, including antibody cocktails being developed at Canada’s National Microbiology Laboratory and Mapp Biopharmaceutical in San Diego, which is working with the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Institutes of Health and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
  • Richard Preston’s 1994 best-selling book about Ebola, “The Hot Zone” and Laurie Garrett’s 1995 book “The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance.”

(First published April 4, 2014)

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Makiko Kitamura in London at mkitamura1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Leah Harrison Singer at lharrison@bloomberg.net