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Second Surge Of Ebola Strikes West Africa


An Ebola outbreak in West Africa is now the largest and most deadly outbreak of that virus ever recorded. The first cases were confirmed in Guinea in March. Health officials thought they had a handle on this. They did not. A rash of new cases popped up in neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. So we're going to talk about this with NPR's Jason Beaubien, who's been following the story. Hi, Jason.


INSKEEP: What's going on?

BEAUBIEN: Basically it looked like this outbreak was going to be like other outbreaks. That they go in; they control it; they isolate the people who are sick; they get them into isolation centers that they build. Most of those people who go in there die, and quite quickly these outbreaks burn out. But that is not what's been happening in this outbreak. It’s continued to spread to different areas in West Africa. This is the first time there has been an Ebola outbreak in West Africa, so that also is new. And lately Doctors Without Borders is saying it's completely out of control, and they don't have the resources to actually contain it the way they need to.

INSKEEP: I want to make sure I understand what you're saying. You're saying this is an incredibly deadly virus, so deadly in fact that it can slow the spread of it. The initial victims die. It doesn't go much farther, but in this case something else is happening. What is it?

BEAUBIEN: Usually these outbreaks occur in Central Africa, in the Congo, in Uganda, Sudan - that's where most of them have been. In West Africa, people have better access to reasonably decent roads, and they move throughout that region on a regular basis. And it appears that people are getting sick in one area, moving somewhere else, spreading it to another area. And it's much harder to contain when you've got it spread out over an area that basically is like the distance from Boston to Baltimore at the moment. And getting resources in there, getting people to come in and work in those places is very difficult.

INSKEEP: So how many cases of this are confirmed, Jason?

BEAUBIEN: At the moment, we're almost at 600 confirmed cases.

INSKEEP: Six hundred cases, not all of them have been deaths at this point.

BEAUBIEN: That's correct; it's over 200 deaths throughout the entire region at this point. And the expectation in this is that it's been about a 50 to 60 percent fatality rate.

INSKEEP: Wow, that's a devastating fatality rate. At the same time, we're talking about hundreds of cases, not thousands. I don't want to minimize the hundreds of cases here, but how scared should we be?

BEAUBIEN: You know, I think Ebola strikes fear in a lot of people in part because it is so deadly, and it's a disease that there is no cure for. All that can be done is to support the patients if they're brought into a clinic. At this point in time, you know, it is possible for a person to get on a plane anywhere in the world and spread this disease to somewhere else. That said, that is not the expectation of what's going to happen. The great fear here is that it's going to continue to spread through mostly rural parts of West Africa. And as it spreads further, it's going to be harder to contain, and that raises the potential that eventually it could spread all the way out of the region.

INSKEEP: Are West African authorities already thinking about steps they might have to take to contain a larger outbreak?

BEAUBIEN: You know, at the moment they're saying that they're not imposing any restrictions on travel, but this is currently going across three different countries. Early on in this epidemic, you did have some borders being closed by local authorities. That might happen if it continues to get worse.

INSKEEP: So when you talk with health authorities about this now, Jason Beaubien, this is an outbreak they thought they contained once, and then it got loose again. Are they telling you now they think they have a handle on it, or are they not really sure where it's going?

BEAUBIEN: No, at this point, they think, like, they do not have a handle on it. And the big problem is that every time it pops up in a new area, you have to set up an entirely new isolation center. You have to send in these people in basically hazmat suits to bury the bodies. You have to bring in these teams of people to go out in the community and sort of educate everybody; don't touch the bodies of the people who've died. Don't clean up after people who have extremely bad diarrhea. That is how the disease is transmitted. And that takes a huge amount of manpower. And as it spreads further, basically Doctors Without Borders has been sounding the alarm saying there aren't the human resources on the ground to do that in every place that Ebola is now popping up.

INSKEEP: Jason, thanks very much.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien. We're glad you're with us on your public radio station with the program that listens to this country and to the world, which is why David Greene is in Miami this morning and just back from Cuba. You can continue listening to our coverage, following it in different ways throughout the day. You can hear All Things Considered on many public radio stations. You can also follow us on social media. You can find us on Facebook. You can find us on Twitter. We're at @MorningEdition, @NPRinskeep and @nprgreene, with an E. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.
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