Despite millions of dollars in research on vaccines and treatments, the deadly and frightening Ebola virus is best tackled today the same way it was during its first epidemic in 1976: With soap, clean water, protective gear, and quarantine. In fact, the care, treatment, and control of the virus is most effective when handled the way American physicians dealt with the 1918 influenza pandemic almost 100 years ago.
The outbreak now unfolding in Guinea -- the first in West Africa in 20 years -- may also have spilled over into neighboring Liberia and Sierra Leone. With 112 cases and 70 deaths reported to date, the epidemic has officially been declared a "regional threat." The West African region shares a vast tropical rain forest rife with virus-harboring animals, including rodents, bats, and chimpanzees.
The Ebola hemorrhagic disease is terrifying, as the virus punches microscopic holes in the endothelial lining of blood veins, vessels, and capillaries, causing blood to leak from its normal pipelines coursing through the body. Within hours, the punctures enlarge, the leaking turns into a flood, and blood pours into the intestines, bowels, and respiratory channels. As the victims become feverish -- raging in pain and hallucinations -- their tears drip red with blood. The crimson liquid flows from their noses, ears, bowels, bladders, mouths, while old wounds reopen all over their bodies. The deterioration is swift, transpiring from infection to death typically within five days. And Ebola is spread, via the infected body fluids, to attendant family members, healthcare workers, and funeral preparers.
In 1995, when I was reporting on the Ebola epidemic in Kikwit, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the disease struck terror across the community of some 600,000 people, many of whom would wail through the pitch dark night the names of the virus's victims. The dread was compounded by the inability of doctors and nurses in the region's clinics to protect themselves. As medical workers contracted the infection, and fled their posts or succumbed to Ebola, the Kikwit community wondered, "What dreaded thing is this, that even the doctors cannot protect themselves?"