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Ebola epidemic in West Africa 'out of control'

By Danielle Dellorto, CNN
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Tue June 24, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There have been 567 Ebola virus cases and 350 deaths since March
  • Ebola virus outbreaks are usually confined to remote areas, but this one is different
  • It can take between two and 21 days for someone to feel sick after exposure

(CNN) -- The deadly Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa has hit "unprecedented" proportions, according to relief workers on the ground.

"The epidemic is out of control," Dr. Bart Janssens, director of operations for Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement.

There have been 567 cases and 350 deaths since the epidemic began in March, according to the latest World Health Organization figures.

In April, CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta traveled to Conakry, Guinea, to report on what was being done to treat patients and contain the outbreak.

"It took only moments to feel the impact of what was happening here," Gupta wrote after landing in Conakry. "There is a lot we know about Ebola, and it scares us almost as much as what we don't know."

Ebola outbreaks usually are confined to remote areas, making it easier to contain. But this outbreak is different; patients have been identified in 60 locations in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Officials believe the wide footprint of this outbreak is partly because of the close proximity between the jungle where the virus was first identified and cities such as Conakry. The capital in Guinea has a population of 2 million and an international airport.

A Guinea-Bissau customs official watches arrivals from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on Tuesday, April 8. Conakry is being ravaged by an Ebola virus epidemic, and Guinea-Bissau officials are concerned about a possible case inside their borders. A Guinea-Bissau customs official watches arrivals from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, on Tuesday, April 8. Conakry is being ravaged by an Ebola virus epidemic, and Guinea-Bissau officials are concerned about a possible case inside their borders.
Ebola outbreak in West Africa
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Photos: Ebola outbreak in West Africa Photos: Ebola outbreak in West Africa

People are traveling without realizing they're carrying the deadly virus. It can take between two and 21 days after exposure for someone to feel sick.

Ebola outbreak not under control
Inside an Ebola isolation ward in Guinea

Ebola is a violent killer. The symptoms, at first, mimic the flu: headache, fever, fatigue. What comes next sounds like something out of a horror movie: significant diarrhea and vomiting, while the virus shuts off the blood's ability to clot.

As a result, patients often suffer internal and external hemorrhaging. Many die in an average of 10 days.

Doctors Without Borders, also known as Médecins Sans Frontières, is the only aid organization treating people affected by the virus. Since March, they have sent more than 300 staff members and 40 tons of equipment and supplies to the region to help fight the epidemic.

Still, they warn, it's not enough.

"Despite the human resources and equipment deployed by MSF in the three affected countries, we are no longer able to send teams to the new outbreak sites."

The good news is that Ebola isn't as easily spread as one may think. A patient isn't contagious -- meaning they can't spread the virus to other people -- until they are already showing symptoms.

Serious protective measures

Inside the isolation treatment areas in Conakry, doctors focus on keeping the patients hydrated with IV drips and other liquid nutrients. Health officials have urged residents to seek treatment at the first sign of flu-like symptoms.

There is no cure or vaccine to treat Ebola, but MSF has shown it doesn't have to be a death sentence if it's treated early. Ebola typically kills 90% of patients. This outbreak, the death rate has dropped to roughly 60%.

Gupta describes the scene outside an isolation ward in Guinea:

Before the doctors go into the isolation ward, Gupta says, they stop in a separate tent beforehand to gear up.

Healthcare workers dressed in scrubs and thick white rubber boots. They slipped on blue latex gloves, then a thick yellow impermeable suit, followed by a mask, then a white hood with another mask built into it. A pair of large clear goggles went over the hood, and then a large white apron.

"It has to be this way for these doctors and nurses who knowingly expose themselves to Ebola," Gupta wrote. "But you have to wonder what goes through the minds of the patients, seeing these rubber-clad aliens looming in front of them."

MSF says they'll continue to isolate and treat Ebola patients in West Africa with the resources they have available, but they urge a "massive deployment" by regional governments and aid agencies to help stop the epidemic.

World Health Organization officials say they're planning high-level meetings for the Minister of Health in the subregion July 2-3 to discuss the deployment of additional resources and experts to the area.

The outbreak will be considered contained after 42 days -- twice the incubation period -- with no new Ebola cases.

READ: Get the fast facts on Ebola

READ: We're aliens in Ebola's world

READ: What is Ebola and why does it kill?

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