In February 2021, the West African country, Guinea, announced that it was facing an outbreak of the Ebola virus, the first the country has seen since the 2013-2016 outbreak. However, this time around, the 2021 Ebola outbreak may be different than that of five years ago.
What is the Ebola Virus?
The Ebola virus is a hemorrhagic fever that is often fatal with a mortality rate that is anywhere from 25% to 90%. The disease spreads through contact with bodily fluids. Ebola survives in nature by spreading between forest-dwelling bats and some other animals, though it sporadically transmits to humans when contact is made with a diseased carcass. Before the epidemic in 2013, most previous Ebola outbreaks occurred in rural communities with cases in the single or double digits.
Previous Ebola Outbreaks
The 2013-2016 epidemic was the largest Ebola outbreak by an unprecedented margin and was the first time the World Health Organization (WHO) considered the disease a major global public health threat. The epidemic, which also began in Guinea, took hold quickly and easily for many reasons. There had previously been no outbreaks of Ebola in West Africa. This caused people to assume the symptoms were that of Lassa fever, a more common disease in the region. The virus had been circulating for three months before the World Health Organization declared an outbreak in March of 2014.
The disease quickly spread within and around Guinea since the systems for contact tracing and containment were weak. By July 2014, it had reached the capital of Guinea, Conakry, and the neighboring capitals of Sierra Leone and Liberia. Funerary traditions and rituals increase transmission because they include touching and spending time with the dead body so traditional burial practices were forbidden.
By the time the WHO designated the virus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern, it was borderline out of control. By the end of the epidemic, Ebola had erupted in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The disease also spread to other countries in Africa, Europe and the U.S. This resulted in nearly 30,000 cases with more than a third of fatalities.
The 2021 Outbreak of Ebola
In February 2021, one Ebola case was confirmed in the village of Goueke in the southeastern region of Guinea. As of March 3, 2021, the number has reached 17 reported cases, 13 of which are confirmed, along with seven deaths.
However, there is less cause for concern than there was five years ago. Though Guinea’s healthcare system needs improvement, past mistakes and experiences have prepared the region better than ever. The world is certainly better positioned to successfully manage the most recent Ebola outbreak.
Reasons for Optimism
- Speed: WHO personnel are already working with the Guinean healthcare system to squash the virus before it becomes a major outbreak. A week after the first case was reported, people began setting up testing sites, contact tracing and treatment facilities. Efforts were also made to improve community engagement to stop the spread.
- Prevention: President George Weah of Liberia and the WHO are taking preemptive measures to prepare Liberia and Sierra Leone for the possibility of the spread of the virus.
- Science: Since the last major outbreak, the WHO has approved two vaccines for use against the Ebola virus. In fact, unlike the last time, when there was no vaccine at all, 500,000 vaccines are ready to be delivered wherever there is an outbreak. The Guinean health ministry has already set up three vaccination sites in the region near the outbreak and had vaccinated more than 1,000 people at the end of February 2021. It is also using a system called ring vaccinations. This interrupts the spread by vaccinating people directly connected to an Ebola case.
- Precedent: There have been outbreaks of Ebola since 2016, and thanks to the above, none have gotten out of control. When the DRC had an outbreak in 2018-2020, nearly 50,000 people were already vaccinated, slowing the spread. Many other countries have approved the vaccines in preparation for a possible outbreak within their own borders.
Global panic arises whenever a deadly disease resurfaces in impoverished communities. However, sufficient preparedness, resources and lessons learned will likely ensure the 2021 outbreak of Ebola is short-lived.
– Elyssa Nielsen