There is a great deal of news today about Ebola, which has now spread to Senegal, the fifth country in West Africa to be affected by the outbreak. The nation has tried to protect itself by banning flights from affected countries, but this is unlikely to be effective given that most people cross the border by ground transport. In Liberia the government has lifted the quarantine on the slum community of West Point, after widespread media reports that the quarantine was being flouted by people who bribed police to leave. At this time, quarantines do not seem to be effective in dense urban environments in developing countries; they are difficult to enforce, and the social costs are high.
The size of this Ebola outbreak is much greater any previous epidemic, in part because it quickly spread to urban areas. Much like MERS in Saudi Arabia, this virus is now taking a heavy toll amongst health care workers. According to the Washington Post, five co-authors of a recent article on Ebola in Science all died before publication. The World Health Organization now says that the outbreak may infect 20,000 people.
There is some good news. A recent study of ZMapp, an experimental Ebola drug, in 18 monkeys found it to be effective. Sadly, the supply seems to be exhausted for now, which means that it may become available too late to be decisive. There is also a great deal of work taking place with vaccines, both in the United States and Canada. This means that in the long run, both drugs and vaccines may be available in quantity for future outbreaks. But the current outbreak will have to largely be fought through the educating the populace, isolating patients, and tracing contacts.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University