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Ebola outbreak: What you need to know now

10/21/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 12/20/2014 05:59 EST
CBC News is dedicating a special day of coverage to the Ebola crisis. On radio, television and online, we'll explore the facts behind Ebola and answer questions. Be part of the conversation Tuesday by using #ebolafacts on social media or by joining our live chat on CBCNews.ca starting at 8 p.m. ET.

Health organizations involved in the effort to contain Ebola are frantically seeking more money, more supplies and more trained doctors and nurses to step up the response to Ebola, which has claimed more than 4,700 lives in West Africa and is expected to kill many more before the current outbreak is halted.

In the years since Ebola's discovery in 1976, there have been intermittent outbreaks of the disease — but none nearly as deadly or far-reaching as the current crisis, which is centred in three West African countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. 

Here's what you need to know now about the disease and the growing effort to stop its spread. 

How many people have died?

The World Health Organization is working with health officials on the ground to try to tally the number of lives claimed by Ebola, but accurately tracking these figures has been a challenge as many cases are never identified or reported.

The most recent WHO case report, released Oct. 17, says there have been 9,216 "confirmed, probable and suspected" cases of Ebola virus, with 4,555 deaths. That number has since increased to 4,700 and even that figure is likely low, since some cases are missed and reporting can lag. Forecasts have varied, but WHO predicts a significant increase in casesunless major headway is made in identifying, isolating and containing cases in the weeks ahead. 

Who is most at risk?

Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea are dealing with what the WHO describes as "widespread and intense" transmission of the disease. People living in these countries are being urged to learn to identify symptoms and report every case, while international organizations scramble to help build up and support the overwhelmed local health systems.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf told CBC News earlier this month that Ebola was like an "unknown enemy" that descended on a country that was already struggling with a weak health system staffed by too few doctors. 

Sirleaf has since warned world leaders of the human and economic toll of the disease, saying "across West Africa, a generation of young people risk being lost to an economic catastrophe."

Health-care hurdles

Health professionals are particularly vulnerable to Ebola, which is transmitted through "direct contact with body fluids of a person who has symptoms of Ebola disease," the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says.

"Doctors died, nurses died, physician assistants died. They were the first to take the toll," the Liberian president said in a wide-ranging interview with the CBC about her country's response to the disease.

The only people to contract Ebola outside West Africa to date have been health-care workers treating Ebola patients — two women in the U.S. and one woman in Spain, who has since recovered.  

The safe recovery and disposal of the bodies of Ebola patients has also been a challenge, particularly in some affected areas where family members generally wash the body of a loved one. 

What's being done to slow Ebola's spread?

Health officials in affected areas are intensely focused on identifying and containing cases through increased surveillance and better treatment facilities. The stepped-up efforts have seen some successes —​ Nigeria was recently declared free of Ebola by the WHO and Senegal has also been declared disease free. 

"The outbreak in Nigeria has been contained," WHO's director for Nigeria, Rui Gama Vaz said  "But we must be clear that we only won a battle. The war will only end when West Africa is also declared free of Ebola."

Public awareness campaigns have also been launched to try to educate people and dispel some of the myths around Ebola, but Doctors Without Borders USA says teams working in West Africa are still reporting "critical gaps" in medical care, surveillance and community public health education.

In hospitals and treatment centres, people working with Ebola patients are being urged to follow rigid protocols and wear elaborate personal protective equipment to protect themselves.

Masks, gloves and protective suits are essential to health-care workers who are hands-on with patients and organizations confronting Ebola are asking for more of the potentially life-saving equipment to be made available. Canada has already sent some protective gear to Sierra Leone and has committed more financial support to organizations trying to fight the disease.

People flying out of affected areas face temperature screenings and questionnaires, and some countries — including Canada — have enhanced airport screening for inbound travellers coming from affected areas. 

The search for treatment or a cure is also moving forward. While there are no proven treatments for Ebola patients, researchers are working on several possibilities, including a vaccine developed in Canada. 

How is Canada preparing? 

Health officialshave repeatedly said the risk to Canadians is very low, but public health agencies, hospitals and staff are still preparing for possible cases. 

Canada has also mirrored the U.S. in creating a "rapid response team" that will be deployed to hospitals to help local officials with:

- Implementing containment protocols.

- Contact tracing.

- Lab expertise.

- Proper use of personal protective equipment.

- Providing necessary supplies, including face shields and gloves. 

Canada says has pledged $65 million to support the effort to halt Ebola and support people affected by the disease in West Africa.

How much more is needed?

The United Nations has launched a major appeal for assistance, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling the outbreak an "urgent global problem that demands a huge and urgent global response."

A temporary UN agency was formed to help organize the response and create a "unified" structure and a "rapid, effective, efficient and coherent response to the crisis." But funding has been slow, and the UN says that it's still well short of its goal of nearly $1 billion US.

As leaders try to sound the alarm and try to secure more funding, agencies working on the ground have come up with a priority list of what's needed to slow and eventually stop transmission, including more mobile labs, Ebola treatment centres and personal protective equipment.

"The time for talking and theorizing is over," Sirleaf said on the BBC. "Only concerted action will save my country and our neighbours from experiencing another national tragedy."

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