A deadly Ebola outbreak in the West African nation of Guinea has killed at least 108 people, including medical workers, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The disease has also sparked fears that it could spread to other countries, including the United States. CNN’s chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta traveled to Guinea to report on what’s happening.
Gupta spoke to TheWrap, from Africa, on whether people in the U.S. should be worried, and on the potential risks in reporting on life-threatening diseases.
TheWrap: The story is fascinating because it’s scary for people living in developed countries that Ebola is still an issue in the 21st century
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: I’ve covered just about every infectious disease outbreak over the last 12 years, and this is the one that makes people the most nervous. It is such a deadly pathogen and I think what’s remarkable about it is that we don’t really know much at all about it despite how long it’s been around– we don’t know where it comes from, we don’t know specifically what causes it. We don’t know how to treat it, we don’t know how to vaccinate against it, we certainly don’t know how to cure it — it’s really a very mysterious thing. In certain outbreaks it kills 9 out of 10 people infected. It does make people nervous — I think what’s particularly worrisome about this is that it has always been in remote African forests, and we didn’t worry about it spreading because the grim reality is that it would kill people so fast that it wouldn’t spread. The problem now is that it is in Conakry [capital of Guinea], which is a city of 2 million and has an international airport and the possibility of someone getting on a plane who has been exposed but not developed any symptoms, that’s a real concern. It’s not likely to happen, but it has been keeping people up at night.
When was the first time they noticed this was happening in Guinea?
It was really just over the last three weeks. When people started getting sick — at first they have headaches, fever and fatigue — things that are pretty vague — so it could be just about anything at that point, there’s so many different infectious diseases including Malaria, Typhoid, yellow fever all sorts of different things, so it took a while to confirm it was in fact Ebola and there were health care workers that were caring for these first patients who died because they got infected as a result of taking care of those patients. It was really sad, there’s some 14 health care workers who died.
Have there been other international groups sent to the region to help stop the spread?
It’s interesting the way that it works — typically the government of the country, in this case, Guinea, will formally ask for help and now you have the World Health Organization here, they’ve been overseeing a lot of the care, but the remarkable work is being done with Doctors Without Borders, they gave us some remarkable access into their isolation wards, they’ve set up a bunch of tents in the field and they can come here and get tested and they can start to get treatment but again there’s no specific treatment for Ebola but they can do things to try and help the patients the best they can.
What was the risk when you went to Guinea? How did you judge whether it was a dangerous situation for you?
I think everyone gets a little bit nervous around Ebola because it’s one of those things — you really have to get close contact with an infected person, it’s very infectious, just a small amount, a microscopic amount can infect you, you might not even know you’ve got some of this on your skin and it can go through a break in your skin, and everyone has breaks in their skin whether they realize it or not. My wife and I had some conversations ahead of time, I never had covered the story of Ebola before, so there was a lot of careful consideration. But I did a lot of homework, I know it’s not airborne, so I know it’s not something you’re going to catch by being around it, I’m just very careful in the isolation area to not touch anything, not let anything on our skin. You just gotta be really vigilant, but I think the risk is very low.
When CNN reports on issues like this — is this a wake up call for a lot of people? Is Ebola something we take for granted?
I think there’s no doubt that Ebola captures people’s imagination. I’ve been really fascinated about this, I studied it when I was in medical school. It’s one of the deadliest pathogens in the world. It kills people very swiftly. It’s one of these things that fascinates people. But there’s a real desire to educate people when something like this happens. I think most people don’t know anything about Ebola when something like this happens, it’s a real opportunity to educate people and simultaneously calm some fears. The perception is that there’s zombie towns, and all sorts of horror movie type afflictions, there’s no doubt it’s a frightening thing, but presenting facts and telling stories makes it a lot more real for people. From a news perspective, it has been primarily in remote forested areas before, and now we live in this global world…we want to make sure we inform people and educate people. I don’t think this is something that’s likely to become an issue in the United States, for lots of different reasons. We have a sophisticated medical system and we know how to stop the spread of these types of diseases. But the idea that we could have Ebola test positive in countries outside of Africa, I think that’s becoming increasingly real.
Watch Sanjay’s report below: