Update on the Ebola outbreak in Guinea

A few clients here in Africa have asked us for our opinion on the Ebola outbreak from a security and staff safety point of view. While we’re neither doctors nor epidemiologists, we do have some experience with similar outbreaks and contacts on the ground – and we hope that we can provide even a little insight that might be helpful to our network.

The situation right now

While there is some quibbling in the press between Medecins sans Frontieres and the World Health Organization about whether this is the largest Ebola outbreak ever, and whether the word “epidemic” should be used, the fact remains that the situation is serious.

As of 2 April, 83 people have died of ebola in Guinea according to the WHO. The outbreak has spread from a relatively isolated area in Guinea to densely populated Conarky, the capital with a population of 2 million, and across the border to Liberia. Neighboring Sierra Leone has also reported several cases, but these have yet to be confirmed.

The WHO has not yet recommended sweeping travel or trade restrictions. Nonetheless, Senegal has already closed its Guinean border, other neighbors are restricting travel, and Saudi Arabia’s health officials have moved to stop issuing visas to pilgrims.

The Zaire strain

The Zaire strain of Ebola, which started the outbreak in Guinea, is extremely virulent and dangerous. Mortality rates are as high as 90%.

Paradoxically, its aggressive nature has a few advantages over other strains – not for its victims, but for the uninfected. Because mortality rates are so high, and because most of those who are exposed to the virus get very sick, very fast, this particular strain does not travel as widely as others. Incubation time can be as fast as two days, but also as long as 21 days.

How Ebola spreads

Ebola spreads through direct contact with an infected person or his or her body fluids (such as blood or secretions). The late stages of an Ebola infection are when the spread of Ebola occurs most often, through direct contact with an infected person. This often occurs at a burial ceremony where mourners touch recently deceased Ebola victims, but Ebola also spreads through direct contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person.

A patient’s family and friends are at increased risk for exposure because they come in close contact with such secretions when caring for the infected person. People can also be exposed to the Ebola virus through contact with needles and anything else that have been contaminated with infected secretions.

What you can do about it

I have been close to a number of outbreaks during my years working in Africa, and have learned that as long as you are VERY AWARE and sensible, refrain from visiting hospitals unless you really must, behave suspiciously around the sick, and keep your distance whenever there seems to be a risk, then all should be well.

With that said, unless you really need to be there, stay out of Guinea for the next few weeks. Keep an eye on the news for updates.

If you are in a region where Ebola has been confirmed, keep your eyes open for anyone looking particularly unwell. Avoid them, and stay away from “direct contact” with as many people as possible.

Hotel staff should be briefed properly, and local staff especially should be made fully aware of the outbreak and taught how to be overly cautious!

As the situation develops over the next few weeks, stay aware of where the outbreak occurs and the flights to and from these areas.

Bottom line: there have been other Ebola outbreaks before, and they will come again until someone figures out a way to deal with this terrible virus. Knowing the risks and maintaining heightened awareness will go a long way toward staying safe.

Will Powell

Regional Security and Safety Advisor

Will served as a Regional Security and Safety Advisor up until 2014.