NEW YORK (CNN) – The spread of Ebola from a remote corner of south guinea to Liberia, Sierra Leone and now Nigeria has killed more than 660 people, and has spread panic across West African nations struggling with weak healthcare systems and porous borders, but what do we know about the virus and its origins?
It was in democratic republic of Congo, then Zaire, and in southern Sudan that the Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976.
“We used this register, early on, to look through it in the periods the outbreak was occurring to see if we could find any patients with the diagnosis that might be compatible with the diagnosis of Ebola,” said Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Professor Heymann was part of the team that investigated the first outbreak, and he says it all began with a school master who may have gotten infected after butchering an animal that he bought from a local market.
“He was treated in the outpatient department with nosebleed and dysentery with an injection and in that outpatient department there were only four needles and syringes and those four needles and syringes were not sterilized between use, and in addition they were taken into the maternity,” said Prof. Heymann.
So the first outbreak occurred in the hospital, where he says poor hygiene was commonplace. Within three months the hospital closed down. 280 people had died, including many of its health workers.
“Health workers then began to get infected because they didn’t know what the disease was. They became infected and they were the source of the virus to their family members and then out to their community. So this was an outbreak that shouldn’t have occurred and wouldn’t have occurred if hospital practices had been the way they should have been,” said Prof, Heymann.
Since then, there have been some ten outbreaks of Ebola. 3,140 reported cases, and more than 2000 deaths. Throughout, the symptoms have remained the same: silent, but when it hits, it’s swift and usually deadly.
Four decades on since that first virus was discovered of Ebola. Why no cure?
“There are no drugs that are known to be effective against Ebola but there is much research going on. So we understand a lot about the disease, we understand how it can be stopped, the mystery still remains as to where exactly it comes from in nature, and how it gets form nature into humans,” said Prof. Heymann.
It’s critical then, among other things, to maintain a clean and disinfected environment. Quarantines and vigilance, experts say they’re key to containing a killer virus.