WHAT is Ebola?Ebola is a viral illness of which the initial symptoms can include a sudden fever, intense weakness, muscle pain and a sore throat, according to the World Health Organization, WHO. And that is just the beginning: subsequent stages are vomiting, diarrhoea and – in some cases – both internal and external bleeding. The disease infects humans through close contact with infected animals, including chimpanzees, fruit bats and forest antelope.
It then spreads between humans by direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids or organs, or indirectly through contact with contaminated environments. Even funerals of Ebola victims can be a risk, if mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased. The incubation period can last from two days to three weeks, and diagnosis is difficult. The human disease has so far been mostly limited to Africa, although one strain has cropped up in The Philippines.
Healthcare workers are at risk if they treat patients without taking the right precautions to avoid infection. People are infectious as long as their blood and secretions contain the virus – in some cases, up to seven weeks after they recover.
Where does it strike?
Ebola outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests, says the WHO. It was first discovered in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976 since when it has affected countries further east, including Uganda and Sudan. This outbreak is unusual because it started in Guinea, which has never before been affected, and is spreading to urban areas.
Can cultural practices spread Ebola?
Ebola is spread through close physical contact with infected people. This is a problem for many in the West African countries currently affected by the outbreak, as practices around religion and death involve close physical contact. Hugging is a normal part of religious worship in Liberia and Sierra Leone, and across the region the ritual preparation of bodies for burial involves washing, touching and kissing. Those with the highest status in society are often charged with washing and preparing the body. For a woman this can include braiding the hair, and for a man shaving the head.
If a person has died from Ebola, their body will have a very high viral load. Bleeding is a usual symptom of the disease prior to death. Those who handle the body and come into contact with the blood or other body fluids are at greatest risk of catching the disease. Medecin Sans Frontiere, MSF, has been trying to make people aware of how their treatment of dead relatives might pose a risk to themselves. It is a very difficult message to get across.
All previous outbreaks were much smaller and occurred in places where Ebola was already known – in Uganda and the DR Congo for example. In those places the education message about avoiding contact has had years to enter the collective consciousness. In West Africa, there simply has not been the time for the necessary cultural shift.
What precautions should I take?
Avoid contact with Ebola patients and their bodily fluids, the WHO advises. Do not touch anything – such as shared towels – which could have become contaminated in a public place. Carers should wear gloves and protective equipment, such as masks, and wash their hands regularly. The WHO also warns against consuming raw bushmeat and any contact with infected bats or monkeys and apes. Fruit bats in particular are considered a delicacy in the area of Guinea where the outbreak started.
In March, Liberia’s health minister advised people to stop having sex, in addition to existing advice not to shake hands or kiss. The WHO says men can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks after recovering from Ebola.
The WHO ruled in August that untested drugs can be used to treat patients in light of the scale of the current outbreak. Patients with Ebola frequently become dehydrated. They should drink solutions containing electrolytes or receive intravenous fluids.
MSF says this outbreak comes from the deadliest and most aggressive strain of the virus.
The current outbreak is killing between 50% and 60% of people infected.
It is not known which factors allow some people to recover while most succumb.
Biopreparat: How Ebola came to be
(Russian: “Biological substance preparation”) was the Soviet Union’s major biological warfare agency from the 1970s on. It was a vast, ostensibly civilian, network of secret laboratories, each of which focused on a different deadly bioagent. Its 30,000 employees researched and produced pathogenic weapons for use in a major war.
History and establishment: Biopreparat was established in 1973 as a “civilian” continuation of earlier Soviet bio-warfare programmes (see Soviet biological weapons program). The project was reportedly initiated by academician Yuri Ovchinnikov who convinced General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev that development of biological weapons was necessary.
A prominent supporter was identified by some authors in General-Polkovnik Taras Chepura, who stressed the importance of disguised research. The research at Biopreparat constituted a blatant violation by the Soviet Union of the terms of the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 which outlawed biological weapons. Its existence was steadfastly denied by Soviet officials for decades.
Exposure of Biopreparat in the West: In April 1979, a major outbreak of pulmonary anthrax in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) caused the deaths of 105 or more Soviet citizens. The Soviets tried to hush things up, but details leaked out to the West in 1980 when the German newspaper Bild Zeitung carried a story about the accident. Moscow described allegations that the epidemic was an accident at a BW facility as “slanderous propaganda” and insisted the anthrax outbreak had been caused by contaminated food.
The first senior Soviet bioweaponeer to defect to the West was Vladimir Pasechnik (1937–2001) who alerted Western intelligence in 1989 to the vast scope of Moscow’s clandestine programme. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and U.S. President George H. W. Bush put pressure on Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev to open up Russia’s germ warfare facilities to a team of outside inspectors.
When the inspectors toured four of the sites in 1991, they were met with denials and evasions. Production tanks which had obviously been intended for making enormous quantities of something were clean and sterile; laboratories had been stripped of equipment.
Pasechnik’s revelations that the programme was 10 times greater than previously suspected were confirmed in 1992 with the defection to the United States of Colonel Kanatjan Alibekov (b. 1950), the number two scientist for the programme. Alibekov (now known as Ken Alibek) had been the First Deputy Director of Biopreparat from 1988 to 1992. He claimed that development of new strains of genetically engineered superweapons was still continuing.
Alibek later wrote the book Biohazard (1999) detailing publicly his extensive inside knowledge of the structure, goals, operations and achievements of Biopreparat. He was also featured in the October 13, 1998 episode of Frontline (PBS TV series).
1990s: The Biopreparat complex suffered with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since then several large bioweapons production lines have been officially closed. Its current state is unknown, however it is likely that Biopreparat and successor entities continued bioweapons research and development at least through the 1990s.
Operations: Biopreparat was a system of 18, nominally civilian, research laboratories and centres scattered chiefly around European Russia, in which a small army of scientists and technicians developed biological weapons such as anthrax, Ebola, Marburg virus, plague, Q fever, Junin virus, glanders, and smallpox. It was the largest producer of weaponized anthrax in the Soviet Union and was a leader in the development of new bioweapons technologies.