By Olwethu Boso
The deadly Ebola virus has claimed thousands of lives in West Africa and threatens to affect many more people around the world.
At a recent public lecture, hosted by the Rhodes University Biotechnology Innovation Centre, Professor Felicia Burt spoke on Ebola. The lecture, entitled ‘Ebola: detection and discovery’, not only focused on Ebola but other Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers as well.
Burt started off her talk explaining that Ebola is a viral haemorrhagic fever. “A haemorrhagic fever is a virus that interferes with an individual’s blood clotting mechanism,” said Burt.
She further went on to mention that the distinctive factor that haemorrhagic fevers have in common is that they are associated with high fatality rates, are easily transmitted and they are nonsocomial infections.
The fact that Ebola, like other haemorrhagic fevers have a tendency to cause nonsocomial infections and has a lack of treatment or vaccines, it is classified as a biosafety level 4 pathogen (BSL-4). “Meaning, it can only be handled within the confines of a maximum containment laboratory,” said Burt. South Africa has a BSL-4 laboratory in Johannesburg.
Workers in these laboratories have to wear all-enclosing plastic suits; they get their oxygen from small air vents attached to the back of their suits. They need to take chemical showers as they enter and leave so that any bacteria can be killed off before it contaminates. Furthermore, conditions in the laboratories have to be maintained under negative pressure.
Burt stated that the Ebola virus is indigenous to Africa and the Philippines.
She added that there are five Ebola viruses and all five are rife in Africa.
- Ebola and Marburg belong to the family Filoviridae.
- Crimean-Congo and Rift Valley Fever are endemic to South Africa.
- Yellow Fever is not common in South Africa, except in travellers.
- Hantavirus has not yet been identified in South Africa.
- Arenavirus has been identified in South Africa as Lujo.
Scientists are uncertain about how viral haemorrhagic fevers such as Ebola move from the primary host – fruit bats in this case – to infecting human and non-human primates.
Ebola first surfaced over 40 years ago. Why has it re-emerged in such an aggressive way?
There have been Ebola outbreaks in the past, but it never moved as quickly because it never hit cities, such as the current outbreak. It usually starts off in rural areas or villages. It will then spread to family members as they try treating each other. When the virus reaches hospitals, with a larger population of people and insufficient hygiene procedures, it spreads faster. There is no certainty as to how it is contracted, but it appears, says Burt, to be spread through contact with blood and other body fluids.
Burt stressed that people should be cautious of the virus, as to date there is no treatment or vaccine for Ebola. The only way to control it is to know source and its transmission chain; then it can be broken.
People should be aware of the following symptoms if they suspect they have contracted the virus: severe headaches, fever, chills, nausea and general flu-like symptoms. People who are most susceptible to the virus are those who were previously in contact with infected animals or individuals. Individuals with symptoms of Ebola can transmit it, as it has an incubation period of 2-21 days.
Burt urged people to always wear protective clothing when dealing with infected individuals. She also urged states and corporations to raise awareness and education as this is vital in fighting the virus.