An outbreak of this deadly disease has raged in Africa for more than a year. But an experimental treatment and a vaccine offer the hope of wiping it out.
For a long time, the mere mention of the word Ebola has been enough to evoke terror. That's because Ebola is a deadly, contagious disease that has killed-in a particularly gruesome fashion-many of those it's infected.
But now scientists could be on the cusp of beating Ebola, which has caused more than 12,000 deaths since its discovery in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
In August, scientists announced that a new experimental treatment seems to work so well-curing 90 percent of those treated-that it will be offered to all Ebola patients in the DRC (see map, p. 21), where an outbreak has been spreading for more than a year. At the same time, a new vaccine to prevent people from becoming infected-which appears to work 98 percent of the timeis holding out the hope of preventing future Ebola epidemics altogether.
"This totally changes the face of the disease," says Ashish Jha, who heads the Harvard Global Health Institute. "It's a reminder that when the world focuses in a certain area, like Ebola, and puts a lot of science and effort into it, we can make amazing progress in very short order."
Global Health Emergency
The current outbreak, which began more than a year ago and was declared a global health emergency in July, is now the second biggest in history. More than 3,100 cases have been diagnosed, and more than 2,100 people have died. The only larger Ebola epidemic was the one that raged in West Africa from 2014 to 2016, infecting more than 28,000 people and killing more than 11,000.
Ebola victims first show signs of a fever, but before long, they have terrible stomach pains and start vomiting. They begin bleeding internally, as the virus attacks vital organs. The skin erupts in bruises and large blisters. In some cases, blood pours from the nose and eyes. Without treatment, about 60 percent of victims die, usually within a week.
Because the bodies of those who die are highly contagious, they need to be handled as little as Dossible and burials need to be conducted only by trained people wearing protective gear.
Until now, the only way to stop an outbreak has been to isolate infected patients, trace everyone they've been in contact with, quarantine every person on that list who gets sick, and then keep repeating the process until, finally, there are no more cases. But now, officials hope that by giving the new vaccine to as many people as possible in the areas surrounding the outbreak, they can stop the disease from spreading.
News of these successes has been particularly welcome since there have been so many setbacks in tackling this latest epidemic.
Initially, health workers were hampered by the fact that the first cases were diagnosed in a remote region where health-care services are limited, and there's a history of ethnic violence that dates back to the aftermath of the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
That turbulent history has made people suspicious of the aid groups that came to fight the disease. Afraid of being confined in isolation units, people have avoided getting tested or treated. People also don't want authorities to interfere in their local rituals related to death and burial.
All this hostility led to the murder of health workers and the burning of Ebola treatment centers last February. The attacks forced aid groups to suspend their work and gave the virus time to spread.
The story of how Ebola spread to Goma, a city of nearly 2 million people, illustrates the challenge officials have been up against: A...