Africa’s Ongoing Ebola Outbreak Is the Worst the World Has Ever Seen

Since February there have been 544 laboratory-confirmed cases of the disease in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia

A scientist separates blood cells from plasma cells to isolate any Ebola RNA in order to test for the virus at the European Mobile Laboratory in Gueckedou, Guinea. STRINGER/Reuters/Corbis

It started in February, when the Ebola virus began spreading through the forested regions of southeastern Guinea, in West Africa. By late March, 29 people had died, and 49 were infected. After the death toll climbed for months, by spring the outbreak seemed to be waning. But in June the virus' spread again picked up speed, and now, says the BBC, the ongoing Ebola outbreak that is affecting Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone is “the biggest and most deadly Ebola outbreak the world has seen.”

As of yesterday, the World Health Organization says that there have been 544 laboratory-confirmed cases of the disease; 291 of those people have died. In total, there are 759 people suspected to have been been infected with the disease, with 467 deaths.

The lack of a structured health care system in the region is making it harder to fight the disease's spread, says Maggie Fox for NBC News. In one instance, she says, medical “team members arrived in at least one village to find it deserted, and the body of an Ebola victim left unattended in a house.”

“It’s not hard to imagine what happened, but it makes it impossible to track down people who might have been infected and get them to hospitals for what care can be provided, and to prevent them from infecting others.”

The Ebola virus was only identified in 1976, says Fox, but this outbreak's climbing death toll and large geographic spread make it the worst yet seen.

Ebola is an incurable disease, and the death rate is high. The only way to stop the disease's spread, says the BBC, is to quarantine the infected. Yet, says virologist W. Ian Lipkin to National Geographic, stopping its spread is easier than for some other diseases, like airborne viruses.

This is not a highly transmissible disease, where the number of people who can be infected by a single individual is high. You have to come into very close contact with blood, organs, or bodily fluids of infected animals, including people. If you educate people properly and isolate those who are potentially infected, it should be something you can bring under control.

Before the most recent cases, the most deadly outbreak of Ebola was in the Congo, says the Guardian. Some are attributing the higher death toll of this outbreak to better surveillance, though, rather than a truly higher number of cases.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.