The deadliest Ebola outbreak since 2007 has spread through West Africa since late March. With 218 clinical cases of the virus, including 141 deaths in Guinea, many countries in the region are facing a public health crisis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has described the current outbreak as “one of the most challenging incidents we have ever faced.”

Contracting Ebola

The Ebola virus is typically found in Central Africa, near rainforests, making the current cases in Conakry, the urban capital of Guinea, uncharacteristic.

The first recorded case of Ebola occurred in 1976 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and has since killed upwards of 1,300 people. The Zaire strain of the virus was the first to be discovered, the most aggressive of the five known strains of Ebola, and has been identified as the strain causing the current outbreak.

Symptoms of the hemorrhagic fever include headaches, muscle pain and weakness, followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases internal and external bleeding. The highly contagious virus is spread by coming in contact with the blood, secretions, or organs of anyone with the disease. However, the virus may be contagious for two to three weeks before symptoms arise, making quarantine of only those with symptoms ineffective. Furthermore, Ebola can still be contracted seven weeks after recovery when symptoms are no longer detectable.

The long contagious period is further complicated by the lack of vaccines for both humans and animals carrying the disease. This lack of preventative measures, combined with the ease of contraction, puts healthcare workers at high risk. In fact, four of the reported deaths from Ebola this year have been of healthcare workers.

All of these factors contribute to Ebola’s high fatality rate, which is usually between 50 and 90 percent. The current outbreak has around a 60 percent fatality rate,but this number could quickly rise if careful action is not taken.

Stopping the spread of Ebola

As the disease spreads to more towns and countries, both international and local healthcare workers are struggling to contain and end this outbreak. One of the priorities in treating the current outbreak and preventing a future occurrence has been determining how Ebola was able to travel from Central Africa to West Africa.

The answer may lie in animal “reservoir hosts” that transmit the disease across populations between outbreaks. Though it remains unknown how this specific outbreak started, researchers have narrowed their search down to three species of fruit bats that live in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and the southeastern region of Guinea where the outbreak was first observed. Identifying a “patient zero,” or the initial patient in the outbreak, is also a priority in understanding how the disease was able to travel thousands of miles to West Africa.

In order to track and treat cases of Ebola, West African health professionals have received help from nonprofit organizations like Doctors without Borders, laboratories in Europe like the Institut Pasteur and the European Union itself, which pledged $690,000 in aid for Ebola relief. This network of supplies and information helped identify the Zaire strain of Ebola as the culprit of this outbreak and has also eliminated suspected cases of Ebola in Mali, Ghana and Sierra Leone.

Though international support may alleviate the intensity of the current outbreak, the WHO expects that West Africa will struggle to contain Ebola for months to come. The speed of recovery will depend on dispelling misconceptions and raising awareness of how Ebola spreads.

In Liberia, where 34 suspected cases have been reported, UNICEFhealthcare workers have been distributing leaflets at churches, mosques, schools and community centers to educate communities about Ebola. UNICEF workers are also issuing medical certificates declaring patients “Ebola free” in an attempt to reduce the stigma surrounding the virus. Informative, community-based initiatives like these will be especially important in cities like Conakry where 2 million Guineans are at great risk of being infected.

The targeted focus and international support has already provided some hope for the eventual end of the outbreak as nine patients have recovered from the disease well enough to be sent home in Guinea.

Countries like Senegal, Ghana and Mali that have no confirmed cases of Ebola must also take precautions to contain the spread of the deadly disease. Though the WHO maintains that closing borders and restricting travel are not effective against Ebola, Senegalese officials have shut the country’s borders with Guinea and Sierra Leone, barred Liberian goods from entering the country, and expelled Guinean workers.

While these extreme measures may create unwarranted fears amongst the general population, healthcare officials in Senegal and Mali have also taken to national television to educate their citizens about Ebola and in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading to their nations.

The presence of Ebola in Guinea’s capital city of Conakry makes the current Ebola outbreak one of the most challenging and dangerous outbreaks West Africa has ever seen.