How Did Ebola Become the Next Big Epidemic?

Joe Weinlick
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The Ebola epidemic has killed thousands of people in West Africa, and a handful of cases have also been reported in Spain and the United States. The story of how Ebola became the next big epidemic is a tale of poor education, lack of resources in affected countries and a slow international response.

Ebola is a virus that typically circulates in animal populations. Although the virus has infected humans before, all previous outbreaks have been confined to small rural communities. The current Ebola epidemic is unprecented in that the disease has reached epidemic status in Sierra Leone and Liberia, killing thousands of people and threatening to spread to other parts of the world.

The first cases in the current Ebola epidemic were reported in Guinea in 2013, in a region close to the borders of both Liberia and Sierra Leone. By March 2014, 49 cases of Ebola were confirmed in Guinea, of which 29 of the victims had died, and the virus was beginning to spread to neighboring Liberia. Early attempts to contain the virus by setting up treatment centers and banning public gatherings in Liberia's capital, Monrovia, failed to halt the spread of Ebola. In June 2014, the Ebola epidemic was described as "totally out of control" by Bart Janssens of the organization Doctors Without Borders.

Fear has played a big role in facilitating the spread of Ebola. Some health workers and volunteers fled affected regions in fear of contracting the virus, while local populations have been strongly distrustful of aid workers. Local customs, in which relatives of a recently deceased person wash and dress the body before burial, also exposed many people to Ebola, as the virus can live in the body even after death.

Thousands of people have died of Ebola in Liberia alone, with hundreds more deaths occurring in Sierra Leone and Guinea. The Ebola epidemic has even claimed a victim in the United States: Thomas Eric Duncan, who contracted the disease in Liberia before traveling to Texas. A nurse who cared for this patient in hospital became the first person to contract Ebola in the United States.

United States military personnel have recently traveled to West Africa to set up treatment centers and help to get the Ebola epidemic under control. However, many people have criticized the slow speed of the international response to Ebola. Jerry Brown, the director of a Liberian hospital, spoke of Ebola was gradually "creeping into society" while people argued about how to respond, rather than taking action.

Getting the Ebola epidemic under control requires a coordinated international response. The disease has already killed thousands in West Africa and could pose a risk to health workers in all parts of the world if its spread cannot be controlled.


Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at



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