Quick facts: What you need to know about stopping Ebola


February 16, 2015

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The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the worst in history and continues to threaten lives in the three most-affected countries — Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, where Mercy Corps has worked since 2002.

The effects of the outbreak are widespread — it’s killed thousands, orphaned children, and ravaged the local economies. Liberia now faces a steep road towards economic recovery, and communities must remain vigilant to ensure that Ebola is eliminated completely.

Our team in Liberia has equipped two million people with the lifesaving information they need to protect themselves and their families from Ebola.

With that knowledge — and emergency food and economic support to meet their daily needs — communities will survive and recover from this devastating crisis.

This work is only possible together. Get the facts below about how we can beat Ebola for good — and find out how you can help. Share this story to tell your friends and networks that, with their help, the disease can be stopped.

When and how did the Ebola outbreak start?
It’s believed that the first case was a 2-year-old boy in a small village in Guinea who died in early December 2013. His family was also infected. The disease began to spread to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, though officials did not recognize the outbreak as Ebola until March 2014.

Scientists are not completely sure where the deadly disease originated, but they believe the most likely reservoir for the virus is fruit bats. According to Doctors Without Borders, bat hunting is common in the area where the first patient was found, and bushmeat like this is a frequent part of the regional diet.

How bad is the current outbreak?
This is the largest outbreak of Ebola ever recorded since the disease was discovered in 1976 — and the first in West Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), almost 30,000 people have contracted Ebola since March 2014 and more than 11,000 have died.

Because the disease spread in many rural areas, the WHO estimates that the number of actual Ebola cases may be significantly higher than those reported.

Why is this outbreak different than those in the past?
Africa has seen other Ebola outbreaks, but this one is different in a few key ways. Past outbreaks have occurred mostly in Uganda, DR Congo and Sudan — all thousands of miles away from Monrovia, Liberia.

Initial fear and panic about the current outbreak was partially caused by a general lack of knowledge about the disease. Ebola hadn’t been seen anywhere near West Africa before, so people knew little about the disease, how deadly it can be or how to prevent its spread.

The last outbreak was in Uganda and DR Congo in 2007, when 413 people were infected. In the past, the disease has been limited to hundreds of cases and has been stopped while still in rural areas, where prevention and containment measures can be implemented more easily.

The recent outbreak hit several urban areas in West Africa, which means it spreads much more quickly because of population density and is harder to contain.

How and why did the disease spread?
Fear, panic and distrust in government officials initially caused widespread skepticism about Ebola and its treatment. Because Liberia had never seen the disease before and news of past outbreaks wasn’t well-known, many people didn’t believe it was real.

Because Ebola is spread through direct contact with blood and bodily fluids, traditional practices of caring for sick loved ones at home and washing the dead by hand before burial made the disease spread quickly. The three countries most affected are still struggling to build effective health systems, and Liberia is recovering from 14 years of civil war.

Liberia had no process or system for generating public awareness when Ebola hit the country hard. Without accurate information about how the disease is spread, communities have a hard time changing traditional behaviors and preventing transmission of the disease.

The most rural and isolated communities may not have received accurate or clear information about how to prevent transmission of the disease or care for people who are already ill.

Can someone be cured once they have Ebola?
There is no proven treatment or cure for Ebola. There are no approved vaccines for the disease either, although a handful of treatments and vaccines are in development.

People can, and do, survive and recover from Ebola. Recognizing symptoms early on and giving the patient supportive care, intravenous fluids and treatment for specific symptoms can aid in recovery.

How do people get treatment for Ebola?
Resources and doctors are scarce in Liberia, so there is now a two-step system for people seeking treatment for Ebola.

If someone thinks they have symptoms, they first go to a community care center, which has testing capability and only very basic care. There, they are tested to find out if they truly have the disease. If they test positive, they are then transferred to a treatment unit that offers more serious and intensive care.

Why do some people avoid getting treatment?
Some people believe that going to a treatment center means that you will get sick and die. Others are fearful of the label they might receive if they go to a treatment center. Even if they test negative for the disease, just seeking medical treatment is enough to cause fear in the community.

And survivors are often ostracized when they return home to a community that may not have a clear understanding of the disease or the knowledge that a survivor does not spread Ebola.

How is Ebola hurting people who aren’t infected?
Everyone in Liberia, where Mercy Corps works, is affected by Ebola in one way or another. Fear of Ebola and the stigma surrounding the disease mean that family members of those infected often face terrible isolation and discrimination in their community.

Thousands of children have lost one or both parents to Ebola. Those who’ve lost both parents face a bleak future. Most are shunned by other family and their community, left to fend for themselves by scavenging for food and selling green leaves for money. Some are taken in by Ebola survivors, but that is the exception, not the rule.

Even those who have had no personal connection with Ebola have a different life now — people avoid touching or shaking hands, there are chlorine hand-washing stations outside of buildings, and many restaurants, markets and businesses are closed.

In an effort to stop transmission of the disease, there were curfews and large group gatherings were been banned. While many of these strategies helped curb the spread, they had other unintended consequences.

Many workplaces have been closed, so families are short on income. Our team in the field discovered that 85 percent of families in Liberia are skipping meals and eating less to cope with the economic effects of the outbreak.

What is the outbreak doing to the stability of the country?
Because of many of the same factors and additional restrictions on transporting goods, markets have less food available, prices are rising, and Liberian families aren’t earning enough money to buy the food they need.

This has a devastating effect on the economy as a whole. Market traders are not selling as much food, and families aren’t buying what is available. The country's agriculture system relies on group labor, which is prohibited under current Ebola-related restrictions, so rice farmers are unable to work.

Without assistance or efforts to avert these economic consequences, Liberia could face a serious food crisis in the coming months. Read our team's full report ▸

There have been reports of things improving. Is that true?
Yes. Liberia has gotten close to zero cases of Ebola, but has still not been declared entirely free of the disease. Communities must remain vigilant now to ensure that Ebola is eradicated. Just one new case can spark a new outbreak.

In the capital Monrovia, a large outbreak of the disease there spurred more precautions and educational messaging around how people can protect themselves from Ebola. This messaging has been in the community for some time, so it has been mostly accepted, and people are avoiding contact with each other and washing their hands more often.

In smaller and more rural communities, there are still pockets of misunderstanding, panic and distrust about Ebola. It’s imperative that those communities receive the same life-saving information as more urban areas and adopt precautions to halt the spread of the disease.

Mercy Corps’ response focuses on assessing what each community needs and adapting our strategy accordingly. Some communities may need hand-washing stations, while others need door-to-door education for the elderly. We must work until every community affected by the disease has the information it needs to stop the spread.

What can we do to stop the spread of Ebola in Liberia?
Accurate information is key — if we can reach every corner of Liberia with the information that people need to protect themselves, we can beat Ebola. To do this, we must mobilize local leaders, who are trusted in their communities, to bring that information to their families and their neighbors.

Mercy Corps is leading a massive public education response that has equipped two million people with lifesaving information about Ebola. We’re making sure the most accurate and up-to-date facts are accessible and credible to all.

“We must activate local networks of trusted community leaders to provide honest, clear information on how to eliminate the transmission of Ebola, and play a positive role in their community during this challenging time,” said Mark Ferdig, Mercy Corps’ emergency response team leader. “Together we can take the myth out of it.” Why community action is key ▸

With the right information in hand, people can recognize symptoms, get proper treatment for loved ones, avoid contact with those who have died of Ebola, and take precautions when interacting with people in their daily lives. This is how Ebola will be stopped.

What does that response look like?
To reach two million people, Mercy Corps and our partner PSI have mobilized public health trainers to rally larger networks of community educators who bring prevention and treatment messages to individuals in their area.

Every community’s needs are different, but these are some of the ways that our teams are working to stop Ebola:

  • Hosting community meetings that will model effective daily hygiene practices and provide information about how to care for people who are sick or have died from Ebola.
  • Going door-to-door to provide similar information to the elderly and the disabled, ensuring that everyone in each community receives the same life-saving information.
  • Setting up hand-washing stations in high-transmission areas, accompanied by educational posters that reinforce messages about preventing the spread of Ebola.
  • SMS (text) outreach with up-to-date information about the disease available to anyone with a mobile device. People will also be able to participate in educational quizzes and report incidents.
  • Using already-established local mass media to spread information about effective hygiene and caring for loved ones.

How can we help?
Our response in Liberia wouldn’t be possible without you. Our team is working hard to get lifesaving information about Ebola to the communities that need it most. With the right information, communities, families and individuals can protect themselves from the disease and ultimately stop Ebola completely.

Even those who survive the disease often face fierce discrimination when they return home to their communities. Our response also focuses on educating communities about survivors to reduce stigma and discrimination.

To address the needs of people feeling the economic effects of this crisis, we are also providing emergency cash and food assistance to vulnerable families and supporting farmers with seeds and tools so that they can grow more food. These efforts will help Liberia in its economic recovery and ensure that local families have enough to eat.

With your support, we can beat Ebola. Here’s how you can make an impact:

  • Donate today.Every contribution helps our task forces deliver life-saving information to communities affected by the Ebola outbreak.
  • Stay informed. Read more about our work in Liberia and how we’re fighting Ebola. Share the latest stories from the field to inform your friends and networks.