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Ebola Epidemic Jumps the Border Into Sierra Leone

The West African outbreak of the incurable Ebola virus has now officially crossed from Guinea into Sierra Leone.
May 27, 2014, 4:50pm
Image via AP/Youssouf Bah

The West African outbreak of the Ebola virus has officially crossed the border into Sierra Leone with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting the first laboratory-confirmed death in the country.

"Preliminary information received from the field indicates that one laboratory-confirmed case and five community deaths have been reported from Koindu chiefdom," the WHO said in a statement on Monday.

According to the WHO, the cases of the disease in Sierra Leone occurred near the border with the Guinean prefecture of Guéckédou — the site of many early infections during this year's outbreak that started in March.

Tarik Jasarevic, a WHO spokesperson, told VICE News that preparedness measures had already been taken in Sierra Leone. Jasarevic explained that there was always a likelihood that Ebola would cross between the countries due to the amount of human movement over the borders.

"We can never speculate how an outbreak may go, but we do know the sooner we put control measures in place, the better it is," he said.

On 25 May 2014, WHO was notified of a lab-confirmed — WHO (@WHO)May 26, 2014

Officials initially suspected instances of Ebola in Sierra Leone during the early phases of the outbreak in the region earlier in the year. Tests for these cases eventually came back negative.

After Sierra Leone's recent round of infections the WHO said it will send six experts to the area to respond to the situation. The organization is also working with the Ministry of Health in Sierra Leone to curb the problem. Health care workers from WHO and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have already been working alongside local staff to isolate and treat patients in both Guinea and neighboring Liberia.

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Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever that can be transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids between infected individuals, or by touching infected animals and corpses. It causes vomiting and diarrhea, as well as organ failure and internal bleeding. There is no Ebola vaccine and the mortality rate for the disease is 90 percent.

According to Jasarevic, tackling an Ebola outbreak requires focus on case management, such as providing treatment and training healthcare workers, contact tracing to determine who may be vulnerable for infection, as well as social mobilization and outreach to people in the affected areas.

'Either we don't know something about how this is being transmitted or the restrictions are hard to enforce in the area.'

The current epidemic is believed to have started in Guinea last December, but garnered international attention when it flared up in March and then crossed into Liberia. There have been more than 250 clinical cases of the disease reported this spring, although only 146 have been confirmed by lab tests.

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As of May 23, the WHO has recorded 174 deaths from this wave of Ebola in West Africa. Only 95 of these deaths are confirmed cases while the rest remain probable or suspected.

Ben Neuman, a virologist at the University of Reading, told VICE News that the continued spread is concerning because preventative measures have been put in place. People were warned to avoid contact with bats, eating certain meats, and holding open casket funerals.

"This suggests that either we don't know something about how this is being transmitted or the restrictions are hard to enforce in the area," Neuman said. "It's probably a bit of both, because the rules put in place should work."

Doctors Without Borders produced the video above, documenting the current mobilization against an unprecedented Ebola outbreak in Guinea.

The Ebola virus is more common in Central African countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo. According to MSF, recent findings indicate the virus in the West African outbreak may be a new strain of Ebola — meaning it was not brought in from another part of the continent.

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Neuman said that Ebola outbreaks tend to die down after about three to six months. But without a vaccine or treatment, once it dies down in Guinea, Ebola will still lurk in the jungles of Sub-Saharan Africa with bats and other forest creatures carrying the disease.

"It's endemic in the area, and it's not going away," said Neuman. "It's going to come back and infect people again, and it's going to keep coming back until we find a way to stop it, or until the jungle is all gone."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB