Why Newest Ebola Outbreak Raises Alarms Far and Wide: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- Ebola is one of the deadliest diseases on Earth, with a fatality rate as high as 90 percent. It’s one of a handful of illnesses that are so deadly governments consider them a threat to national security. An epidemic in West Africa that began in late 2013 killed more than 11,000 people, exceeding the counts from all previous waves combined. A new outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo has raised fears again of a wider contagion.

1. What’s raising alarms?

Ebola is endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), meaning it’s constantly present but generally under control. In mid-May an outbreak spread for the first time from rural areas to a major city, Mdandaka. The risk of contagion is much greater in densely populated urban areas. Mdandaka is home to about 1.2 million people and is situated on the Congo River, linking it to the capital Kinshasa, with about 12 million residents, and Brazzaville, the capital of neighboring Republic of Congo. The 2013-2016 epidemic began at a crossroads where people move frequently across porous borders in search of work or food, and cities became centers of contagion.

2. How does Ebola spread?

Ebola is a virus that spreads among people through direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is infected with Ebola or has died from it. Medical workers and family members are the most at risk. Ebola doesn’t travel through the air, making it harder to transmit than many other pathogens as long as proper health-care practices are followed.

3. Where does it come from?

Scientists think it jumps to humans through contact with secretions from animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas and bats that are infected with the virus.

4. Is it treatable? Preventable?

There are no specific drugs for treating Ebola. Treating symptoms early on increases the patient’s chances of survival. This includes administering fluids and body salts intravenously to prevent dehydration, providing oxygen, and using drugs to support blood pressure, and control vomiting and diarrhea. An experimental vaccine produced by Merck & Co. proved effective in human trials. It has not yet been licensed anywhere, but the DRC government has approved the drug for use in the face of the new outbreak.

5. How far could it spread?

A committee of the World Health Organization determined May 18 that conditions for what it calls a Public Health Emergency of International Concern had not been met. In the last big epidemic, Ebola spread from three epicenter countries -- Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone -- to Nigeria, Senegal and Mali. And, for the first time, Ebola infection occurred outside Africa. That provoked panic in the U.S. and Europe, but in all there were just seven cases and one death from Ebola there.

The Reference Shelf

  • A report on ethics and Ebola by the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.
  • Richard Preston’s 1994 best-selling book about Ebola, “The Hot Zone”
  • A WHO report on the last epidemic.

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