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Behind the Ebola virus: a culture in conflict

Behind the Ebola virus: a culture in conflict

Behind the Ebola virus: a culture in conflict
September 10
23:47 2014

Samantha McDonald // Staff writer

Upon the release of Fort Worth doctor Kent Brantly from Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital three weeks ago, the Ebola virus has been making headlines as it continues to threaten thousands who are exposed to the disease.

In the midst of the worst Ebola outbreak in history, the World Health Organization reported Tuesday that the virus will claim 20,000 lives within the next six to nine months. This statistic only reinforces the severity of the strain, which has its roots in four West African countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

Compared to a 90 percent death rate in the 1976 case in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the current Ebola outbreak kills about 60 percent of its victims.

“When I first heard about it, I thought it was scary because most of the infected die,” said Warangkana Ruckthongsook, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental science. “It also depends on your body’s resistance.”

The virus is transmitted through bodily contact, including fluids excreted from a human body, and contaminated objects. Once a person contracts Ebola, symptoms such as fever and muscle pain are expected to show within 21 days. Internal organs begin to bleed in the late stage of the disease, which leads to blood loss and, most likely, death.

“The easiest way is to avoid contact with the person,” said Joseph Oppong, professor of geography and U.S. representative to the International Geographical Union Commission on Health and the Environment. “But when somebody is sick, you usually have the response to take care of them – maybe massage or feed them – and all of that puts you at risk for the disease.”

Behind the outbreak

The World Health Organization was notified in March of the outbreak’s existence in West Africa, which is medically identified as “Zaire ebolavirus.”

The first recorded case, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, was in a 2-year-old boy in December in the town of Guéckédou, Guinea. Nineteen days after his death, the boy’s 3-year-old sister was infected and consequently died. The children’s mother and grandmother followed, bringing about a chain of events that caused the deaths of those who attended the grandmother’s funeral.

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that fruit bats are the reservoir hosts, the cause of human infection remains unknown.

The disease is also difficult to determine at first, as victims will experience symptoms that can easily be tied to malaria or the common flu. Headaches and vomiting, however, lead to stomach pain and bleeding from open areas on the body, at which point the Ebola virus may be too late to control. Its incubation period also means that victims may not realize they have the disease and mingle with other people to whom they may then spread Ebola, such as in the case of the Liberian diplomat prior to the Nigerian outbreak.

“I tell students that a disease outbreak in any part of the world puts everybody in the surface of the earth at risk,” Oppong said. “Diseases don’t need visas to travel. They get a ride.”

The cultural issue

In traditional African society, celebrating the dead at funerals is a sign of respect. Unlike the United States, people in countries such as Nigeria and Liberia believe that life and death are not distinct from one another, and thus honor the dead through a ritualistic burial. Families spare no expense in organizing a funeral that includes drummers and dancers while inviting as many as they can to celebrate the life, death and afterlife of the deceased.

One of the most important steps in preparing for a customary African funeral is the clothing of the dead. Recognized as a demonstration of wealth, families bathe and dress the body in the finest fabrics they can afford. Through this process, if a person contracts any discharge from an infected dead body, he or she is essentially exposed to the disease, particularly in the case of Ebola.

“This cultural diminishing is what is missing from all the discussions about Ebola,” Oppong said. “The way we treat the dead, in the context of this disease, means that doing the proper thing for the dead is going to be exposing me, and all those who go to the funeral, to the disease.”

The best way to contain the virus, in this case, is to cremate the dead body. However, in societies such as those in West Africa, this option is at the very least appalling. Burning the dead is considered desecration, as Africans believe that the absence of a burial can lead to their ancestors sending negative forces upon them, causing disasters, injuries and, in the worst scenario, death.

“It’s going to take a little bit more of education, and Ebola is forcing some of that,” Oppong said. “But you can’t just change that culture. It’s going to take some time.”

A temporary solution

Although the outbreak was reported to have begun more than six months ago, a cure has yet to be made available to Ebola’s most affected regions. Two Americans who contracted Ebola last month were successfully treated after being given the experimental drug, ZMapp; however, thousands continue to die in West Africa as conditions surrounding the development of a medicine remain unclear.

This factor largely contributes to the controversy behind an effective cure to the virus. Because Ebola primarily affects poor people who are most likely unable to afford medication, it has been debated that pharmaceuticals are not willing to invest millions of dollars of research into a disease that may not gain a considerable profit.

“It is not a sexy disease,” Oppong said. “It is not a disease that affects people in North America. It is not a disease that is affecting a large number of people.”

In addition to this problem is the region’s lack of proper medical systems. Typical West African hospitals host open-aired quarantine units where gloves are rarely accessible and syringe needles are often used more than once. In some cases, doctors and nurses are forced to use plastic garbage bags to keep from becoming infected during their treatment of sick patients.

“It is definitely a recipe for disaster,” Oppong said. “Ebola is surviving in the context of a poor medical system where they don’t have the medication and they don’t have the preparedness.”

These conditions are unlike the United States’ high-tech facilities and advanced protective gear. Still, the virus can travel to the U.S., but its chances of surviving and thriving in an environment that screens the temperatures of incoming travelers at airports is slim at best.

What we can do

Aside from raising awareness, people who are not directly involved with Ebola can advise those they know who are planning on taking trips to tropical countries to stay away from any person with symptoms of the disease.

“What a person has to do is if they’re international travelers, and it doesn’t matter what country they go to in this world, it’s always good to check travel advisories to any country and do what they can to mitigate contact with whatever is going on in whatever country they are going to,” said Herschel Voorhees, director of clinical services at UNT’s Student Health and Wellness Center.

Through this, people can help spread the word about the necessity of investing in more resources that can lead to the end of the outbreak. Although Texas ties to Ebola may be indirect, failing to understand the virus and its nature can prove dangerous to anyone in any region of the world.

“Diseases don’t respect those borders,” Oppong said.

Featured Image: The countries affected by Ebola in Africa. Illustration by Jake Bowerman – Staff Illustrator

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