BY JACK PARKINSON
Ebola. It is a word that is unfortunately, becoming more and more familiar these days. The first reports this year were in March, with hospital staff in Guinea telling the country’s Ministry of Health about a virus from its southeastern regions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) later confirmed the disease to be Ebola. In 2013, researchers at the New England Journal of Medicine traced the outbreak to a two-year-old girl who died from the virus in Meiliandou, a small village in southeastern Guinea.
Since then Ebola has spread like wildfire across West Africa.
The latest figures from WHO place the number of total infections at more than 6,000 across the three hardest-hit countries: Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. The number of deaths in those countries is more than 3,000 and WHO recently declared that the situation constituted a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (a PHEIC).
The outbreak meets all the criteria that warrant a PHEIC, and was described by WHO as an “extraordinary event” in their declaration on Aug. 8.
This is the third time in its history that WHO has made such a declaration – the other two times were related to the H1N1 spread in 2009 and the resurgence of polio in May of this year.
The virus has appeared in the United States but has so far only affected a few people. It has not appeared in Canada.
“I’m advised by our International Education Office that none of Conestoga’s international students come from the areas of West Africa that are experiencing the outbreak,” said Brenda Cassidy, director of corporate communications at Conestoga College, in an email.
Conestoga and many post-secondary institutions with international student bodies face a unique problem when it comes to international outbreaks like the current Ebola one. Conestoga has thousands of students using the campus every day, and even a single person could be enough to infect many more.
But, according to Cassidy, the actual risk of infection at Conestoga is almost nonexistent.
“Given that the incubation period for the disease is two to 21 days, anyone who has been here since early September cannot have contracted the virus,” Cassidy said.
Ebola is not transmitted by air, water or food, but rather through direct contact with bodily fluids. The disease remains in animals most of the time and must make the jump to humans.
These restrictions make spread difficult in North America – one of the contributing reasons Ebola spread so quickly in West Africa is that many religious and funerary practices in the region involve hugging and close physical contact. In Ontario, this is not the case.
Several of the countries hit by Ebola’s spread have underdeveloped health infrastructure. Sierra Leone, for instance, has a population of six million people, yet has only about 130 doctors and just over a thousand nurses.
Above all, the most important thing is prevention and information. Cassidy stressed that Conestoga has a plan in case Ebola does appear in Ontario or Canada. In that event, Conestoga would follow all guidelines, screening recommendations and precautions issued by local public health officials for preventing the spread of the disease.