October 18, 1995
Web posted at: 12:30 a.m.
From Correspondent Jim Clancy
LONDON (CNN) -- Fear gripped their faces; uncertainty tortured their minds. The people of Zaire waited outside clinics, churches and in their own homes for treatment for a new horrible disease. But there was no cure. They watched people die, hoping that they would be spared the same violent death.
In 1976, Ebola climbed out of its primordial hiding place in the jungles of Africa, and in two outbreaks in Zaire and Sudan it wiped out 600 people. To this day, even the most basic questions about the disease remain a mystery.
Ebola virus victims usually "crash and bleed," a military term which literally means the virus attacks every organ of the body and transforms every part of the body into a digested slime of virus particles. "Ebola does in ten days what it takes HIV ten years to accomplish," wrote Richard Preston in his best-selling non-fiction book "The Hot Zone."
Dr. Lindsey Martinez of the World Health Organization said that no one knows where Ebola hides in between epidemics. "And the investigations are still going on, looking at the animal reservoir to try and find which animal or insect may be harboring the virus and allowing it to re-emerge from time to time as happened in Zaire," Martinez said.
The most recent Ebola outbreak emerged again in Zaire in May 1995, killing nearly 250 people.
But the WHO warns that it is just as concerned about the re-emergence of known diseases, such as cholera and diphtheria; diseases that may have returned to epidemic levels due to complacency.
World Health Organization experts say that they have the tools and the skills to fight infectious diseases worldwide, but that's not enough. "What remains to be done is to get an international team of experts on standby which is ready within 24 hours to stop an epidemic should it start anywhere," said Dr. David Heymann of WHO.
Such a team would focus on the fundamentals, including how humanity's changing social behavior poses risks. In developing countries, hundreds of thousands of people leave rural areas to seek a better life in major cities. The result is overcrowding and a lack of clean water and sanitation -- a perfect setting for the outbreak of disease.
But developed countries face the threat as well. Many experts fear that as man to travels from country to country, continent to continent, in only a matter of hours, he forgets that infectious disease may be along for the ride.
Martinez, one of the doctors who worked on the Ebola virus in Africa, sees the possibility of new risks. "There are almost certainly diseases out there waiting to get us. What is happening is that human beings are invading territories where no human beings have been before," he said. "We're cutting down forests, we're going to areas to develop agriculture where there isn't any before. Human beings are coming into contact with animals and insects they never met before."
The obvious risk is that a new disease will find its way around the globe. But experts like Dr. Martinez, are asking a more troubling question: If it does, will the world be able to stop it?
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