It sounds like the perfect script for a horror movie: A virus with no vaccine and no cure kills hundreds of people; despite containment efforts, it keeps spreading.
But it’s actually all too real in West Africa, where doctors have said Ebola is now “out of control.”
While scientists dig for clues that could help develop medicine or better vaccine, the only prevention technique remains isolation. And despite health care workers who wear hazmat-like suits, use bleach as soap, and burn bedding instead of washing and re-using, the World Health Organization announced today that the virus has killed at least 467 people and spread throughout Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, making this the most deadly and farthest-reaching outbreak of the disease since it first appeared in 1976.
While containment is possible in theory, breaks in protocol compromise the effort -- and are common in countries where both the disease and foreign medical workers are feared. In one Sierra Leone village, residents burned down the treatment center, convinced that the patients were being given medicine that caused the disease. And some patients escape hospitals to hide.
“Rumors are rife that if you eat three large onions, for example, you won’t get Ebola -- but if you go to the hospital, you will get it,” said Dan Epstein, a WHO spokesman in Switzerland.
One of the most revered local customs could account for much of the disease's spread, Ebola experts say: Local tradition calls for washing a corpse before it is buried, putting everyone who participates in the ritual in touch with bodily fluids that contain the virus.
“The cultural practices are so deeply imbedded that local people have told health care workers that if they did not adhere to the ablutions (ritual washing of the corpse), they would be shunned by everyone in their family and village,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Government task forces have run radio and television ads to try to counter the myths, but mistrust of the government can render them ineffective, said Epstein.