Via The Guardian, the best news report I've seen yet on the political aspects of the outbreak: Fear and ignorance as ebola 'out of control' in parts of west Africa. Excerpt (but read the whole article):
Described by virologists as a “molecular shark”, ebola is believed to be hosted by the fruit bat, a delicacy in Guinea and Liberia. The current strain is at least the fifth mutation since its discovery in 1976.
Diagnosis is often complicated by the fact symptoms mirror those of malaria, common in the region, including fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. Victims sometimes have horrific internal and external bleeding and most die of shock or multiple organ failure, although chances of survival increase dramatically if adequate treatment is received early on.
No cure exists for ebola but confirmed cases are first quarantined before undergoing intensive rehydration therapy. Due to its high contagion rate, medical workers should wear head-to-toe biohazard suits even when dealing with dead patients.
Weak public health systems have also undermined attempts to halt the disease. Sierra Leone and Liberia are both recovering from decades of back-to-back civil wars, while half a century of dictatorship in Guinea ended in 2010.
Daily reports from Liberia’s ministry of health provide a glimpse of just how big the hurdles are. On the eve of the regional summit, two suspected cases from Voinjama had travelled to the capital Monrovia – but specimens hadn’t been collected because “the county laboratory supervisor could not be found,” internal notes said.
The report also warned of an acute shortage of thermometers among a team dispatched to trace those who might have been in contact with suspects. Many of them feared taking temperatures in case they were exposed to the disease or attacked by locals, it added.
But an alarmingly wide spread is partly down to geography. “The deaths have been increasing because of traditional burial rites in that region,” said Tolbert Nyenswah, Liberia’s deputy chief medical officer. The Kissi ethnicity, found in all three countries, traditionally keep their dead at home for several days, and mourners touch the deceased’s head frequently before burial.
Ebola has a fatality rate of up to 90% and is transmitted through contact with fluids of infected people or animals, like urine, sweat, blood and saliva, even after death.
A doctor in Sierra Leone said patients’ families often attempted to break them out of treatment centres – often successfully. “Some of them are in denial and that it is something they can treat at home, and faith healers are one of the problems for us. When you have patients disappearing like that, you don’t know where the virus will appear next.”
When trader Fiya Lasana was diagnosed with suspected ebola in a clinic in Sierra Leone’s Kailahun district, he was put under quarantine. But convinced he had only malaria, he slipped out. Days later he returned, weak and dazed, for treatment. “My family tried prayers, but that didn’t work, so I returned,” said Lasana, who was declared ebola-free after eleven days.
Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, on Monday issued a warning on state radio that anyone suspected of holding ebola patients in homes or churches would be prosecuted.
The disease has also revealed alarming mistrust between citizens and public office holders in a region with shocking corruption levels.
Ebola was initially viewed as a government conspiracy to depopulate Sierra Leone’s Kailahun district, and fierce resistance to the arrival of health workers culminated in the stoning of a Doctors Without Borders vehicle. In Liberia, many remain adamant the outbreak is a hoax from government officials seeking to distract from a series of recent scandals, or for health officials to rake in public funds.
“I will say this loud, the government of Liberia has come up with a new strategy to divert the Liberian people’s mind,” student Alfred Randall said. “We understand the issue of ebola, ebola is real, we agree the virus is a very terrible virus, but ebola is not in Liberia,” he said.