Ebola is one of the deadliest diseases in the world, and now health workers say it is spreading. West Africa is now facing a serious crisis--the largest ever outbreak of the virus.
Christian international relief organization Samaritan's Purse is among several non-government organizations that have responded to the crisis. Medical team director Dr. Lance Plyler, who talked to CBN News via Skype from Monrovia, Liberia, described the outbreak as monumental.
"In regard to ebola outbreaks, it's really unprecedented. Right now, it's not just a problem in a given country, it's a real sub-regional problem...in terms of geographical distribution and in terms of patients infected," he said.
Fifty new cases of the disease were reported within the last week in Sierra Leon and Liberia. Guinea is also a country of concern; however, no new cases have been reported there as of early July.
Overall, 844 cases of ebola have been reported in the three countries and 518 people have died from the disease. There is no known cure for the virus, but in the past, health workers have successfully prevented the disease from spreading.
Plyler suggested the disease isn't always recognized because some of the symptoms mask diseases endemic to West Africa, such as malaria or typhoid.
"Initally the person presents with fever and then malaise...their muscles and joints begin to ache very intensely. It's followed by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and then in the very advanced cases there can be bleeding."
Members of the media often report that ebola patients bleed profoundly. But Plyler said it is mostly common in advanced cases.
West Africans are contracting the disease from bats. Plyler said fruit bats are carrying the disease, and many people in the region eat bush meat, including bat.
Once a person becomes infected, the virus is spread through contact with the infected person's body fluids.
"It's very infectious through body fluids...unfortunately just through the transmission of body sweat," Plyler explained. "It's very cultural here with the burial ceremony that the loved ones prepare the body and there's a lot of washing of the body in preparation for burial and that's a very, very common mode of transmission."
As they work to prevent the disease from spreading, medical teams often fight against cultural rituals. Educating the people and changing their minds about traditional practices harmful to their health may be the biggest challenge.
Plyler said Samaritan's Purse joined with Doctors Without Borders because the organization felt a moral obligation to provide direct patient care and to inform Americans and the rest of the world about the crisis.
He said it's unlikely to spread to America but more doctors and nurse volunteers are needed to help the effort.
CBN'S Operation Blessing was also among the first to respond to the ebola outbreak. Last May, Operation Blessing sent medical supplies, inlcuding gloves, face masks, and coveralls with hoods to the Liberian government. The items were used by aid workers treating ebola patients on the Sierra Leon border.