Ebola: the race against time

As the death toll rises to more than 5,000, the World Health Organisation have declared the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa a ‘Public Health Emergency of International Concern’.

First described in 1976, the virus is thought to have originated from the fruit bat, its natural host. Subsequent close contact to bodily fluids of infected animals, including the chimpanzee and forest antelope, has led to human transmission via broken skin or mucous membranes. Certain cultural practises, notably burial ceremonies involving washing the deceased contributes to its rapid spread.

Disrupting blood flow by forming blood clots, the virus attacks nearly every organ and tissue in the body and is also known as Ebola Hemorrhagic fever. Following a two to twenty one day incubation period, onset of fever fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat followed by vomiting and symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function are indicative of infection. Whilst the exact mechanism of disease is unclear, it can be inferred that the immune is severely affected and cause of death ranges from massive blood loss, renal failure or shock.

Individuals undergo blood tests at treatment centres to confirm a diagnosis. All arrivals receive supportive care, including rehydration and antimalarial treatment to improve chances of survival, however the fatality rate still stands at around 50%.

The experimental drug Zmapp works by attacking proteins on the surface of the virus and is the latest combination of three antibodies investigated by researchers. The scientific journal Nature published the only clinical trial data on 18 rehsus monkeys, which had a 100% survival rate. No human data on the drug is available and whilst two US aid workers and one Britain have recovered after taking Zmapp, a Liberian doctor and Spanish priest died despite treatment. It is unclear whether Zmapp boosts any chance of recovery.

With no licensed treatment or vaccine the fast track effort towards a safe and efficient cure is of utmost importance, the world is observing this race against time.

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About Sumaya Anwar

Sumaya Anwar is a student of biological sciences at UCL, with a special interest in genetics. Having previous experience as a broadcast journalist, producer and researcher, she now actively works as a presenter and writer. An outgoing, sociable person, she is always interested in finding out others opinions in the pursuit of seeing an issue from every angle. This is reflected in her writing, with a versatile style that would suit a multitude of different topics. Holding a strong belief that a combination of ambition and hard work make anything possible, Sumaya perseveres to make science assessable as well as understandable to everyone.
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