By Sona Movsisyan and Marya Skotte

On Friday, July 25, Patrick Sawyer, a consultant for Liberia’a Finance Ministry, died of the Ebola virus in the Nigerian city of Lagos. This is the first recorded case of the highly infectious disease in Africa’s most populous country. After his death, the government shut and quarantined the hospital to prevent the outbreak from spreading in one of the most crowded parts of the city that is home to 21 million people.[1]

The Ebola virus is a highly infectious illness with fatality rates up to 90 percent, according to the U.N. World Health Organization. People that contract the disease initially experience a sudden fever as well as joint and muscle aches. The more severe symptoms that follow are vomiting, diarrhea, and in some instances, internal and external bleeding. The virus spreads through contact with bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat, and urine with infected animals or people, making it extremely contagious. The disease is likely to spread more quickly during the rainy season, from June to September in West Africa, as the season makes it easier for body fluids to spread through water. There is no known vaccine or cure for the disease, so if not caught early, it is very unlikely the victim will survive.

The capture, preparation of, and consumption of “bush meat” is seen as one of the main ways people contract Ebola. Bush meat consists of any kind of wild animal that can be caught in the jungle, including animals like bats and monkeys that are known to carry the Ebola virus. While eating cooked bush meat poses no serious threat, the capture of the wild animals as well as the preparation of raw meat without the use of gloves or other forms of protection, puts many people at risk of contracting Ebola.

While health officials and health organizations have actively stated the dangers of eating bush meat, many West Africans have carried on the practice for decades and refuse to believe the warnings. This is a huge obstacle to containing the spread of the virus, since many West Africans do not believe the disease is real. Conspiracy theories run wild, with locals believing that medical staff at Kenema, the main treatment center in Sierra Leone, kill patients and remove their body parts.[2]

The current outbreak of Ebola is very dangerous. It has hit three small West African countries: Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. It is believed that the virus emerged in February and has claimed more than 670 lives, including the lives of physicians. The virus has proven more difficult to track in West Africa as the region has a higher population density and better roads. The strain of Ebola virus in West Africa is also less aggressive than previous strains, which enables infected patients to spread the disease farther before they display symptoms.

The concern is that ebola is spreading to other regions in Africa, such as Nigeria, and possibly outside the continent and to the Untied States. [3] Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, stated in a televised interview, “We are very much present and active in trying to help the countries of the region and the international authorities like the World Heath Organization address and contain this threat. But it is indeed a very worrying epidemic.”[4]

Authorities are monitoring the people who were in direct contact with Sawyer and are trying to locate those who were on the same flight. Since Sawyer’s flight stopped in Lome, Togo, on its way to Lagos. The World Health Organization sent teams to both Nigeria and Togo to make sure there are no more outbreaks. Over the weekend, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, closed most of the country’s borders. The points of entry that are still open will have Ebola testing centers and will implement preventative measures. [5]

US health officials are also monitoring the Ebola outbreak. On Monday, The Centres for Disease Control sent a health alert to US doctors about the outbreak; however, there are no travel restrictions put in place yet for West Africa. Two American aid workers in Liberia contracted the Ebola virus and it has also killed the Liberian husband of an American woman, who had traveled to the U.S. Officials have stressed that people are not contagious until they show symptoms, which makes it unlikely that the Liberian man spread the disease while in the US. [6]

This epidemic is one of the worst Ebola outbreaks in history. The World Health Organization stated, “The outbreak is beyond each national health sector alone and urged the governments of the affected countries to mobilize and involve all sectors, including civil society and communities, in the response.” [7] It is important that the international community collaborates to assist these West African countries whose resources are limited. It is also crucial that local populations abide by orders of government authorities and foreign health workers.

In the short-term, emergency humanitarian support is needed to treat infected patients and to prevent further spread of the disease. Donor aid could be a successful way to help international health NGOs fight the spread of Ebola[8].

In the longer term, international support must look at building the infrastructure and capabilities of local health and sanitation systems so that they can adequately respond to emergencies. Prevention might be better than a cure, even though it is difficult to build the capacity to do this. Preventative capacity must incorporate the cooperation between different parts of health and sanitation systems and must interact with local dynamics, such as the partiality for traditional healers and medicine.