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The World Health Organization this morning confirmed a “rapidly evolving” outbreak of Ebola in Guinea. This is the first ebola outbreak in western Africa and the worst outbreak in Africa since 2007.
There is no treatment for Ebola, which is a viral disease that jumps from animals to humans often after a person eats tainted meat. It is exceedingly deadly, killing about 80% of infected people. Once in a human host it can spread easily through human-to-human interaction. So far this outbreak has claimed 59 lives out of 80 reported cases.
So far the only confirmed cases are located in remote south eastern Guinea. Two suspected cases in the capitol city of Conakry have tested negative. Another suspected case of a man who traveled to Canada from nearby Liberia has also tested negative. Two samples from six suspected cases in Liberia are currently being tested.
When an acute emergency like this occurs in a country that lacks the capacity to deal with an outbreak like this on its own, the World Health Organization springs into action and manages a global response. The WHO typically plays a coordinating role, with local officials and supporting institutions US Centers for Disease Control and NGOs like MSF taking the lead on the ground. The WHO has facilitated the move of an Institute Pasteur laboratory from nearby Dakaar to Conakry and is supporting an MSF lab in the affected province of Guinea.
The WHO also has in-house expertise in responding to Ebola outbreaks in Africa. It is dispatching a team to Guinea that includes not just medical doctors and epidemiologists, but an anthropologist as well. This multi-disciplinary approach to stemming the outbreak is key. In past outbreaks transmission has often occurred when friends and family members bury their dead. Part of this anthropologist’s job will include finding the balance between a culturally appropriate yet medically hygienic burial practice.
This outbreak is far from over. The samples in Liberia may test positive, adding a further layer of complexity to crisis response. Still, this is one of those moments where humanity should be thankful we have something like the World Health Organization. Ebola knows no boundaries. As the scare in Canada shows, even an outbreak in remote corner of West Africa can spread across the globe.