DAKAR, Senegal — A total of 539 deaths in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have now been attributed to the Ebola virus — the largest outbreak on record.
Ebola has reached the capitals of all three countries, and the World Health Organization reported 44 new cases including 21 deaths, on Friday.
Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever that can cause its victims to bleed from the ears and nose, had never before been seen in this part of West Africa, where medical clinics are few and far between.
The key to halting Ebola is isolating the sick, but fear and panic have sent some patients into hiding, complicating efforts to stop its spread.
Preachers are calling for divine intervention, and panicked residents in remote areas have on multiple occasions attacked the very health workers sent to help them. In one town in Sierra Leone, residents partially burned down a treatment center over fears that the drugs given to victims were causing the disease.
Activists are trying to spread awareness in the countryside, where literacy is low.
Guinea first notified WHO about the emergence of Ebola in March and soon after cases were reported in neighboring Liberia. Two months later there were hopes that the outbreak was waning, but then people began falling ill in Sierra Leone.
Doctors Without Borders says it fears the number of patients now being treated in Sierra Leone could be just the tip of the iceberg. Nearly 40 were reported in a single village in the country’s east.
This Ebola virus is a new strain and did not spread to West Africa from previous outbreaks in Uganda and Congo, researchers say. Many believe it is linked to the human consumption of bats carrying the virus.
There is no cure and no vaccine for Ebola, and those who have survived managed to do so only by receiving rehydration and other supportive treatment. Ebola’s high fatality rate means many of those brought to health clinics have been merely kept as comfortable as possible in quarantine as they await death. As a result, some families have been afraid to take sick loved ones to the clinics.