Ebola Virus Disease not yet defeated in West Africa

Even though the three states where the Ebola Virus Disease struck last year have been declared free of the epidemic, cases have been reported over the last several weeks in Liberia.

This West African state has maintained close ties with the U.S. since its founding as a republic in 1847. Freed enslaved Africans from the U.S. and their descendants have constituted Liberia’s governments for nearly 170 years.

President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, one of only two African women presidents on the continent, continues to rely on funding and political direction from Washington. Thousands of Pentagon troops were deployed to Liberia at the height of the EVD crisis in 2014. They were downsized after the number of cases drastically declined.

Recently Liberia has recorded two deaths from the dreaded disease. On July 16, a nurse died in a hospital in the capital, Monrovia, soon after she was checked in.

This woman became the sixth case of EVD since it reappeared in June, after no cases had been reported for more than two months. The latest victim lived in Montserrado County, where Monrovia is located. It has been suggested that the Monrovia case is linked to five others from neighboring Margibi County.

Reports say that the nurse was caring for her son who became ill. Health authorities in the country are tracking up to 140 people who may have had contact with the latest victim.

“We have asked all county health officers to be on the alert,” said Francis Kateh, Liberia’s chief medical officer. “We are not saying the other counties have Ebola. But we need to alert them so that we wouldn’t experience the previous outbreak.” (USA Today, July 16)

Ever since December 2013, when the most recent epidemic was first recognized, there have been 27,600 EVD cases, with more than 11,000 deaths. Liberia was the hardest hit, with more than 4,800 deaths.

EVD was first recognized in 1976 in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. There have been several outbreaks in nearly four decades, with the 2013-15 epidemic the most widespread and lethal.

The outbreak of EVD in Liberia came only a decade after a 14-year civil war which killed thousands and dislocated many others. The already-limited infrastructure in the country was severely damaged during the conflict.

The war also compounded the inherently dependent relations with the U.S. Since the 1920s, international banking interests and mining corporations have largely controlled the Liberian government.

Such an outbreak of EVD was bound to cause extreme distress on the population and the economy, given the country’s inadequate resources to build medical clinics and hospitals and to train healthcare personnel. The blockading of large swaths of urban and rural areas during the height of the outbreak took a devastating toll on agricultural production, local commerce and delivery of social services.

Sierra Leone and Guinea report cases

Sierra Leone and Guinea, the other two West African states which constituted the epicenter of the outbreak, have also reported several Ebola cases in recent weeks.

The political history of Sierra Leone, a former British colony, is similar to that of Liberia. The country was established in the early 19th century for the resettlement of freed Africans after the conclusion of the war between London and its 13 colonies that became known as the United States.

The Liberian civil war during the 1990s spilled over into Sierra Leone, doing damage to the society that it has still not fully recovered from. With the conclusion of the war more than 10 years ago, the Pentagon has utilized the country as the training ground for the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Soldiers trained by the U.S. Army Africa, a wing of AFRICOM, have been deployed to Somalia as participants in the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), which is financed heavily by Washington and the European Union.

Ghana’s Daily Graphic reported, “The outbreak reared its head at a time when the country’s health officers were unprepared for the Ebola battle. The unpreparedness of government to face such a battle was clearly manifested by the few ambulances allocated to referral hospitals in the district headquarters towns. Although some districts have gone for months without recording any case of Ebola, new cases are still being recorded within the Western Area in which the capital city is situated, as well as Portloko and Kambia in the north of the country.” (July 16)

In the same report, William Sao Lamin, a programs officer for the nongovernmental organization Health Alert, told Politico SL that Sierra Leone’s medical sector encompasses a staff of 6,000 serving 1,200 health units and 19 referral hospitals across the country. More than 150 of these health officials succumbed to EVD, including 12 physicians.

Lamin explained that prior to the outbreak, the health sector was already strained with acute shortages of qualified personnel. “The volunteers in the hospitals cannot be relied upon as they are untrained and unpaid,” he stressed.

One of the physicians who died from EVD, Dr. Shek Umar Khan, was the only virologist in the country attached to the Lassa Fever Unit in the Kenema Government Hospital.

In Guinea — a former French colony which has undergone several military mutinies and coups since the country’s founder, President Ahmed Sekou Toure, died in 1984 — the social and economic conditions have not been conducive to the building of health care treatment centers with trained personnel. Guinea has been cited as the source of the outbreak in late 2013, which spread rapidly into Liberia and Sierra Leone.

The World Health Organization, which monitors the number of cases and coordinates responses in conjunction with regional governments, admits that it failed in not moving rapidly enough to stem the tide of the epidemic. WHO officials now say they are far more prepared to address the cases that have surfaced over the last few weeks.

Vaccine testing continues

Efforts to develop a vaccine have met challenges in West Africa over the last several months, with the decline in the number of infections. Meanwhile a trial involving an inhaled vaccine in monkeys has shown positive results, according to researchers.

Despite a considerable amount of discussion since 2014 about the development of a vaccine, no medicines have been approved that can cure the disease in humans. Scientists claim that a treatment known as TKM-Ebola-Guinea has the ability to kill the Makona strain of the virus, at least in primates. The vaccine has not been tested on humans. (Tech Times, April 23)

Vaccine researchers have revealed that the drug is made by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals Corp. and is supposed to work by blocking genes that replicate the virus.

In another trial ZMapp, an Ebola drug manufactured by Mapp Biopharmaceutical, cured primates in lab experiments. Nonetheless, the primates were infected with another strain of EVD.

“We can’t say for certain that an experimental drug that works against one strain will work in another, even if they’re almost identical genetically,” noted Thomas Geisbert of the University of Texas Medical Branch, who is a senior investigator in the study. (Reuters, April 22)