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The gloved hand of a Liberian health department burial team worker disinfecting their protective clothing after retreiving the body of a woman suspected of dying of the Ebola Virus (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)
Image: John Moore/Getty Images

How does Ebola spread?

Helena Schwar / ew
August 21, 2014

As more doctors treating Ebola patients contract the disease themselves, it's clear that better prevention is needed. But given the virus's resilience and the low Ebola awareness in West Africa, this is no easy task.

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Ebola has claimed over 1,000 lives in West Africa so far. Despite great efforts on the part of medical specialists, the World Health Organization and aid organizations, the virus continues to spread.

In order to become infected with the disease, people need to come into direct contact with bodily fluids - such as blood, urine, feces and sweat - that contain the virus, or touch a contaminated object. The virus is very resilient and can survive on various surfaces for a long time. It can be transferred via traces of bodily fluids on surfaces like toilet seats and tabletops.

When the carrier dies, the virus doesn't die right away. Instead, it lives inside the corpse for up to a week, continuing to pose a danger.

Scientists believe that the current epidemic is a result of such infections. They trace it back to a young boy who contracted the disease through contact with a fruit bat that had been hunted for consumption. He then passed the virus on in his community.

Once the virus is inside the body, it multiplies rapidly and starts destroying blood vessels. It also impairs blood clotting and causes a strong inflammatory response. The immune system cannot react quickly enough. The damage to blood vessels leads to a drop in blood pressure, and patients ultimately die of multiple organ failure.

Additional measures necessary

Although the causes of infection are known, more and more medical workers are contracting the virus. According to the Hamburg-based Bernhard Nocht Institute for Tropical Medicine (BNI), this is because the required safety precautions for medical personnel are not strictly maintained at all times. This is either the result of lack of awareness or necessary equipment.

If managed well, the epidemic could be quickly stopped, but this involves measures that extend beyond hospital treatment. The affected populations need more information and education on the topic.

Health workers wearing protective clothing prepare to carry an abandoned dead body presenting Ebola symptoms in Monrovia, Liberia (Photo: REUTERS/2Tango)
Not all medical workers have been taking enough precautionsImage: Reuters

One major obstacle are traditional burial practices in some West African societies. They involve putting the deceased person's body on display and touching it, which can facilitate the spread of the virus. In addition, some people believe the disease was brought in by the foreign medical workers themselves and therefore refuse to be treated by them.

The key to success in the fight against Ebola lies in education. Those infected need to be convinced to seek medical help, while those around them need to know how to protect themselves.

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