Ebola: the facts

7 July 2014

Ebola is one of the most frightening and deadly diseases known to mankind and the current West Africa outbreak is the largest ever, affecting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Ebola's highly infectious nature means that it can spread rapidly when an outbreak occurs. 

A mother holds her young daughter while she has her temperature taken at a screening centre on the road from Kenema to Bo in Sierra Leone
A mother holds her child while she has her temperature taken at a screening centre on the road from Kenema to Bo.

The high death rates associated with Ebola create fear and a lack of faith in the medical system. Our staff in Liberia and Sierra Leone tell us that people are not seeking help if they suspect they have contracted the disease but are staying home to pray.

Eight reasons why Ebola is dangerous and people are frightened

  1. This tropical viral disease has a mortality rate of 70 per cent although previous outbreaks have reached as high as 90 per cent.
  2. Ebola is transmitted by handling infected animals such as monkeys or fruit bats, where it is naturally present, and then spreads quickly through human contact.
  3. There is no vaccine or cure although some patients respond to oral rehydration therapy or intravenous fluids.
  4. Initial symptoms – which appear between two days and three weeks from contracting the virus – include high fever, throat and muscle pains, hiccups and headaches.
  5. The next stage is vomiting and diarrhoea, and liver and kidney functions start to shut down.
  6. At this point, most people start to suffer from severe internal bleeding, death normally follows.
  7. Once in the human population Ebola is spread through direct bodily contact with blood or other bodily fluids.
  8. Contagion continues after death and safe disposal of bodies is therefore imperative.

Ebola has all the symptoms of a global epidemic and demands an international response

Currently, every person who contracts Ebola is infecting a further two people and the World Health Organisation is predicting the possibility of 10,000 new infections a week by Christmas. Massive and sustained medical intervention is essential.

Local health services cannot cope and all three countries require far more medical personnel and equipment than are currently on the ground. This includes help with contact tracing and high quality screening.

While treatment and care of those infected remains a prerequisite, the nature of the disease means that preventative measures to limit the spread of the virus are vitally important. These save lives and prevent suffering.

Prevention measures include thoroughly cooking meat, the regular cleaning and disinfecting of homes, hand washing, wearing appropriate clothing when tending the sick and dying and limiting contact. 

Those who have been quarantined need practical help - as do Ebola survivors.

If you cannot work, you go hungry so food aid is essential. If you are just released from a treatment centre but all your belongings have been incinerated, you need a basic survivor kit that includes a change of clothes and toiletries.

Ebola outbreaks in the US, Europe and Spain

We are beginning to see sporadic Ebola cases in countries including the USA and Spain, or treatment of returning infected aid workers such as Ebola nurse William Pooley in the UK.

Yet, the west has excellent health services and infection control procedures which will quickly contain any outbreaks. And we can take confidence from Nigeria's response. As soon as an Ebola case was announced, they swiftly responded with effective surveillance and containment procedures based on their battle to combat polio.

The public in countries outside West Africa should not be afraid but should recognise that this is a global epidemic that requires a global response centred on Ebola's epicentre - Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

Ebola must be tackled at source if it is to be contained.

What we're doing to tackle Ebola in West Africa

Our teams in West Africa are on emergency alert. We have allocated hundreds of thousands of pounds to fighting the disease. A vital strand of our work is prevention campaigns because without those we will not stop Ebola.

We are helping people understand how to protect themselves and distributing Government and World Health Organisation information in local languages using flyers, radio jingles and door-to-door visits and using these to help with contact tracing.

We are giving food aid to families quarantined for more than three weeks, equipment to local health workers including rubber gloves, protective overalls and bleach, and education materials to children – schools have now been closed for months and are expected to remained closed for much of the school year.

In Liberia we’re also giving discharged Ebola patients survivor kits. These are people who lost everything when their belongings were incinerated as a preventative measure.

As the UN expects the Ebola outbreak to continue, if not accelerate over the coming weeks, the importance of this work cannot be underestimated


This blog was updated on 15 October 2014