TIME Infectious Disease

Sierra Leone’s Chief Ebola Doctor Contracts the Deadly Virus

Sheik Umar Khan, head doctor fighting the deadly tropical virus Ebola in Sierra Leone, poses for a picture in Freetown, June 25, 2014.
Sheik Umar Khan, head doctor fighting the deadly tropical virus Ebola in Sierra Leone, poses for a picture in Freetown, June 25, 2014. Reuters Staff—REUTERS

Symptoms of Ebola include high fevers, diarrhea and vomiting

The top doctor fighting Sierra Leone’s deadly ebola outbreak has contracted the virus himself, the country’s government said Tuesday.

Sheik Umar Khan, 39, is leading an assault on the virus that the World Health Organization says has already claimed 632 lives—206 in Sierra Leone alone as of July 17.

The ebola virus is ruthless, with a mortality rate of 90%. Transmitted through direct contact with the body fluid, blood and infected tissue of victims, ebola can easily spread to the health workers working hard to fight it.

“Health workers are prone to the disease because we are the first port of call for somebody who is sickened by disease. Even with the full protective clothing you put on, you are at risk,” Khan said in an interview with Reuters, before displaying the illness.

Khan is credited with treating more than 100 Ebola victims, Reuters reports, and is considered a “national hero” by the nation’s health ministry. The doctor has been moved to a treatment facility run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders, according to a statement released Tuesday from the president’s office.

The outbreak began in Guinea this February, but has quickly spread across West Africa.


TIME Infectious Disease

Report: U.S. Citizen Tested for Ebola in Ghana

This scanning electron micrograph, SEM, depicts a number of Ebola virions. UIG/Getty Images

U.S. Embassy is working to confirm case of deadly virus

A U.S. citizen who traveled in regions of West Africa in the grip of an ebola virus outbreak is being tested for the disease in Ghana.

“He is an American and records showed that he had been to Guinea and Sierra Leone in the past few weeks,” a senior health ministry official told Reuters in an interview. The patient is reportedly quarantined in a clinic in the capital Accra and test results, which should be available later on Monday, are being examined at the Noguchi Memorial Institute of Medical Research.

According to Reuters, the U.S. embassy in Ghana has been informed of the case and is working to confirm it.

The ebola outbreak, which started in Guinea, has been declared “out of control” by the health group Doctors Without Borders, which is treating patients in Western Africa. Ebola causes fevers, vomiting, diarrhea and death, and has spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia.



Here’s What It Will Take to Contain the Worst Ebola Outbreak in History

Doctors Without Borders is calling the latest outbreak in west Africa “out of control,” and here’s why


The “perfect storm” analogy is often over-used when it comes to disease outbreaks–all the elements that you don’t want to see converge to make conditions ripe for a bacteria, or, in this case, a virus, to rip through a population at lightning speed: geography, society, culture, a potent virus, reluctant politicians and a weak health care system. But all those factors are contributing to history’s largest-ever Ebola outbreak, which the World Health Organization now calls a “crisis.” Since early spring, Ebola has spread to two additional countries, Sierra Leone and Liberia, infecting 635 people and claiming nearly 400 lives.

MORE: Ebola Outbreak Beyond Our Control, Doctors Without Borders Says

The Ebola virus causes a nasty infection that triggers an inflammatory reaction so intense, patients essentially drown in their own fluids as they bleed internally and externally — victims’ bodies are overtaken with a well-intentioned defensive system run amok. Anyone who comes into contact with the infected fluids can also get infected. As of now, there are no treatments for Ebola. The only hope is for the body to remain strong enough to overcome the initial onslaught from the virus and start to develop antibodies to fight it. As patients get sick, they stop eating and drinking, becoming too weak to develop these critical antibodies. Left alone, nine out of 10 infected people die. At treatment centers, where doctors can provide supportive care with nutrients and hydration, that figure improves to seven out of 10.

Those aren’t great odds, and social and cultural practices in west Africa may be stacking the deck even further. Dr. Michel Van Herp, a physician and epidemiologist with Doctors Without Borders who traveled to Guinea when the outbreak began, says he has been confronted by hostile villagers who did not welcome the medical help.

“I have had aggressive people in front of me in the village,” Van Herp says, as he tried to bring infected patients to treatment centers. “Most villagers are denying the existence of Ebola.”

MORE: 6 Things to Know About the Latest Ebola Outbreak

That denial is fueled by a strong stigma against the disease. In other parts of central Africa where smaller outbreaks occurred, survivors of Ebola returned to their villages only to find their homes burned and their remaining family members ostracized for having been infected.

Such denial not only increases the risk that the close contacts of those infected by Ebola will be affected, but it also creates the ideal situation for the virus to gain an even broader foothold. A critical first step in containing any outbreak of infectious disease involves carefully tracing which people patients have been in contact with. Only then can scientists start to create barriers against the virus by keeping it contained to people known to have already been exposed. In Guinea, denial and stigma against Ebola means some patients who believe they are infected are fleeing to other villages or even crossing the border to another country.

“If you have a guy who runs away to a village 20 kilometers away, then you need to start from scratch in that village to trace his contacts,” says Van Herp.

MORE: What You Need to Know About the Ebola Virus

Making things worse is the fact that in the part of western Africa where the outbreak is centered, the population is particularly mobile, often traveling to nearby Sierra Leone and Liberia in search of work.

“We’ve seen kids who travel between three or four villages, and between the countries before they are too sick and weak that they aren’t able to work any more,” says Van Herp. “In the meantime they have contaminated three or four villages.”

Cultural practices mean that the potential for transmitting Ebola is also amplified if a respected elder is affected.

“If a guy like this falls sick, then more people try to cure him,” says Van Herp. “If he dies, more people are involved in the process of the funeral–in cleaning the dead body, and preparing the body. We have seen that one patient can give disease to 15 or 20 other people.”

Van Herp plans to return to Guinea in July, but he says that so far, there hasn’t been much improvement in people’s education and acceptance about Ebola, despite the rising number of deaths. The WHO has called an emergency meeting of 11 nations next week to discuss ways of containing the outbreak. Attending will be the Minister of Health from Uganda, where the government has made efforts to address the stigma associated with Ebola by creating a survivors network to educate and inform the public about the disease–and hopefully reduce fear and misperceptions about the virus.

TIME Infectious Disease

Ebola Outbreak Beyond Our Control, Doctors Without Borders Says

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières staff carrying the body of a person killed by viral hemorrhagic fever at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Gueckedou on April 1, 2014.
Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières staff carrying the body of a person killed by viral hemorrhagic fever at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Gueckedou on April 1, 2014. Seyllou—AFP/Getty Images

The medical group treating Ebola patients in Africa says it can't keep up with emerging cases

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical organization treating Ebola patients in West Africa, says it has reached the limit of what the group can do to fight the worsening outbreak there.

In a statement released Monday, the organization said it is the only group treating people infected with the disease in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. “We have reached our limits. Despite the human resources and equipment deployed by MSF in the three affected countries, we are no longer able to send teams to the new outbreak sites,” said Dr. Bart Janssens, MSF director of operations, in a statement.

Since the outbreak started in March in Guinea, MSF says it has treated 470 patients (215 of them confirmed cases) related to Ebola. The group has 300 international and national staff working in West Africa and has sent more than 40 tons of equipment and supplies. But with new cases emerging in new places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, the organization says it cannot keep up. Earlier, the group said the outbreak is “out of control.”

Since the disease emerged earlier this year, there have been over 520 cases and 330 deaths. Ebola is a very infectious hemorrhagic fever that has up to a 90% fatality rate. In April, Guinea’s Health Ministry said deaths from Ebola slowed and that the outbreak was close to being brought under control. But the World Health Organization reported earlier this month that in Guinea alone, there were 37 new cases and 21 new deaths between May 29 and June 1, 2014.

MSF said more groups need to help quell public anxiety over the disease, and that people are distrusting health facilities and not heeding warnings about funeral rituals that put them at risk. “Civil society and political and religious authorities are failing to acknowledge the scale of the epidemic, with few prominent figures spreading messages promoting the fight against the disease,” the organization said. In the statement, Janssens says the WHO and neighboring countries need to provide resources necessary for an epidemic.

The WHO has not released a response to the MSF statement but says it is working with local governments and is planning a regional meeting in Ghana on July 2, the Associated Press reports. The WHO does not currently recommend any restrictions to travel or trade in Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone.

TIME Infectious Disease

Ebola Still On The Rise in West Africa, WHO Reports

Health workers wearing protective suits walk in an isolation center for people infected with Ebola at Donka Hospital in Conakry on April 14, 2014. CELLOU BINANI—AFP/Getty Images

The global health body says 21 deaths and 37 new suspected cases have made this outbreak one of the largest in 7 years, defying local claims that the virus is under control

Ebola cases have spiked in the west African nations of Guinea and Sierra Leone, according to new figures released by the World Health Organization on Wednesday, undermining local officials’ claims that the virus has been contained.

The outbreak caused a suspected 21 deaths and 37 infections in Guinea between May 29 and June 1. In the same period, Sierra Leone recorded 13 new cases.

The updated tally brings the total number of suspected cases to 328. Health officials have confirmed the presence of Ebola in 193 of the cases so far, making it one of the largest recorded outbreaks in seven years.

Ebola is a highly infectious haemorrhagic fever that can have up to 90% fatality rates.

TIME Africa

Ebola Virus Claims 61 Lives in Guinea

A scientist separates plasma cells to isolate any Ebola RNA in order to test for the virus at the European Mobile Laboratory in Gueckedou, Guinea, on April 3, 2014 Misha Hussain—Reuters

The West African country of Guinea has seen 109 confirmed cases of the Ebola virus, of which 61 have been fatal, according to local health officials and the World Health Organization

Sixty-one people have died from the Ebola virus in Guinea since January, said the West African nation’s Ministry of Health on Saturday. There have been 109 confirmed cases of the virulent disease in the entire country.

“The biological analysis can be achieved henceforth quickly,” said Dr. Sakoba Keita, the Guinean health official leading attempts to combat the infection, which can have a fatality rate of up to 90%.

First discovered in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, the Ebola virus was named after the Ebola River near where the former outbreak was discovered. There is still no cure for the disease, which is spread through bodily fluids and the handling of infected corpses.

TIME Infectious Disease

Guinea Says Ebola Outbreak Almost Under Control

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 April 3, 2014.
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 April 3, 2014. Misha Hussain—Reuters

Health experts in the west African country say there are fewer new cases of the virus, which has no cure and which is fatal for a significant portion of those who contract it, suggesting the outbreak that has killed over 100 people there may be close to being contained

Guinea’s health ministry says deaths from its recent Ebola outbreak have slowed, and the latest flare-up of the virus is close to being under control.

The disease has already killed 106 in Guinea and spread to neighboring countries in Western Africa, but Rafi Diallo, a spokesman for Guinea’s health ministry, told Reuters that the number of new cases have fallen dramatically. Once there are no more new cases, the outbreak can be considered under control. The World Health Organization (WHO) says it could take two to four months for the outbreak to be entirely contained, Reuters reports.

There is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola, which is known to kill up to 90 percent of the people who contract it. The virus spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids, including blood, feces or sweat. The disease can spread via sexual contact or unprotected interaction with contaminated corpses.

Although the virus remains a significant concern, the WHO is confident it will be contained. Since the majority of people who get the disease will die from it, there’s not too much time for it to spread, as long as health workers can quickly identify who has come in contact with a sick person. WHO’s media spokesperson in Guinea, Tarik Jasarevic, told TIME last month: “We know this disease. It’s not the first time we’ve seen it so we know the measures we can take. It’s not a new disease.”


TIME ebola

6 Things to Know About the Latest Ebola Outbreak

Doctors Without Borders staff carry the body of a person killed by viral haemorrhagic fever, at a center for victims of the Ebola virus in Guekedou, on April 1, 2014. Seyllou—AFP/Getty Images

In the West African country Guinea, 122 people were diagnosed with Ebola. One of the most lethal viruses known to humans, it has reportedly spread to the country’s capital and possibly to neighboring Liberia

In the past several months, Ebola has leaped from a remote forested corner of Guinea in West Africa to the congested coastal capital of Conakry, spreading panic and fear in its wake. Even if it doesn’t liquefy internal organs in quite the graphic manner described in the 1995 thriller Outbreak, the Ebola virus, which inspired the movie, is one of the most lethal known to man, on par with untreated HIV/AIDS. So far 122 people have been diagnosed in this latest outbreak, in addition to six suspected cases in neighboring Liberia. Eighty-three cases have resulted in death. In response Senegal has closed its borders and Senegalese singer Youssou N’dour cancelled an upcoming concert in Conakry. Ebola has killed at least 1700 people since it was first identified in simultaneous 1976 outbreaks in Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, but rarely has it reached urban centers, where cramped quarters can make transmission even easier. Conakry has 13 suspected cases so far, prompting extreme measures even in neighboring countries: on Monday Liberia’s Health Minister Walter Gwenigale warned citizens to stop having sex because the virus is spread via bodily fluids.

So just how bad is Ebola? And how likely is it to jump the Atlantic? Here is a quick primer on what you need to know:

How bad is the outbreak?
The Medical NGO Doctors Without Borders is calling the Guinea outbreak an “epidemic of a magnitude never before seen,” but there have been far higher death tolls in the past: a 2001 outbreak in DRC killed 187; a year before that 224 died in Uganda. What makes this particular outbreak so serious is its geographic spread. Not only is it the first time that Guinea has seen Ebola, but cases have been found across the country in areas hundreds of miles apart, instead of concentrated in one isolated area. This complicates quarantine practices, and makes the job of health workers responding to the outbreak even more difficult.

Where does it come from?
The Ebola virus only hitches rides with human hosts as an afterthought. Its natural reservoir is thought to be in Africa’s population of wild fruit bats, though it is also prevalent in chimpanzees, gorillas, porcupines and forest antelope. That’s why health officials are encouraging locals to avoid eating so called “bush meat,” or any kind of animal found dead on the forest floor.

How is Ebola transmitted?
It’s not just through sex. Direct contact with infected blood, organs, mucus, or other bodily fluids risks transmission, from kissing to sharing needles, soiled towels and bedding. Even those rare few who survive Ebola remain infectious for a while — men can transmit the virus in their semen up to seven weeks after recovery. Health workers and mourners preparing the deceased for funerals are at particular risk. In response, the World Health Organization has already sent 3.5 tons of protective material to Guinea, including biohazard suits, disinfectants and burial shrouds designed to prevent further infection.

Could it jump continents through international flights?
Hollywood notwithstanding, it hasn’t. Victims are usually too ill to travel, let alone board a plane. Still, it could happen. One variation of Ebola found in China and the Philippines did make it to a U.S. laboratory via infected macaques, but according to the WHO, no illness or death in humans has ever resulted from that particular strain. Some countries are already taking precautions. Saudi Arabia has announced the suspension of visas for Muslim pilgrims from Guinea and Liberia.

Ok, so Ebola doesn’t liquefy organs. What does it do?
Either way, it’s not pretty. Ebola starts with a sore throat, red eyes and possibly a rash, followed by the onset of fever, intense muscle pain, severe headaches, “vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding,” according to the US Centers for Disease Control. In rare cases, spontaneous bleeding from body orifices and skin punctures, even needle marks, can occur. Death, which can take place anytime between 2 to 21 days, is usually caused by multiple organ failure, loss of blood or shock, according to clinical surveys conducted in the wake of the first outbreak in 1976.

Is there a cure or a vaccine?
Not yet, but we are getting close. One potentially promising treatment in development in Canada was fast-tracked by the U.S. government earlier this month, but it will take months if not years for a full rollout. Because Ebola is so rare, and usually only infects small populations in remote corners of Africa, investment into finding a cure or a vaccine has been limited. That may change. Ebola is on the U.S. list of potential bioterror agents because humans have no natural immunity. As a consequence, the U.S. has started funding vaccine research. In the meantime, the only thing that can be done for infected patients is to treat symptoms and prevent secondary infections through the use of antibiotics, pain medication, anti-clotting drugs and IV hydration. That, and stopping the disease’s spread in the first place.

TIME Infectious Disease

Ebola Spreads from Guinea to Liberia

Medical personnel at the emergency entrance of a hospital receive suspected Ebola virus patients in Conakry, Guinea, March 29, 2014.
Medical personnel at the emergency entrance of a hospital receive suspected Ebola virus patients in Conakry, Guinea, March 29, 2014. Youssouf Bah—AP

Health officials in the West African country say the outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever is suspected to have killed at least 78 people so far. Nearly six weeks had passed before authorities identifying the outbreak as Ebola, allowing it to spread

Health officials in the West African country of Guinea report that the outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever has killed a suspected 78 people.

The disease, which has no cure, is thought to have come from the forests in southern Guinea. It has now spread to the densely populated capital of Conakry after an infected person traveled there, proposing a greater risk than when the virus was limited to the country’s less crowded villages. Senegal also closed its border with Guinea to prevent disease spread, and will implement sanitary checks on flights between Guinea’s capital and Dakar.

Nearly six weeks passed before authorities began to identify the outbreak as Ebola, allowing for the virus to spread. As of Friday, 24 samples have tested positive for Ebola, with two confirmed cases in Liberia, and suspected cases in Sierra Leone. The patients in both Sierra Leone and Liberia had traveled to Guinea.

When victims contract Ebola, they experience fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat. After that, the symptoms advance to vomiting, diarrhea rash, and poor kidney and liver function. Sometimes a patient will also experience internal and external bleeding. As TIME reported last week, there is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola; symptoms can only be managed. Typically patients are dehydrated, so they are given oral or intravenous fluid containing electrolytes. They are also quarantined so that they don’t infect others. Most of the time the virus is contained because patients die relatively quickly, making it difficult for the disease to travel too far, too quickly.

“An Ebola outbreak is always something of concern because it’s highly contagious and we don’t have a vaccine,” says WHO media spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic in Guinea. “On the other hand, we know this disease. It’s not the first time we’ve seen it so we know the measures we can take. It’s not a new disease.”

Jasarevic says clinical management is the first priority for containing the disease, followed by disease surveillance. “We need to find the people who have been infected. Incubation is a few days, so we need to check who infected people have come in contact with, find those people, and see how they feel.”

WHO is helping to coordinate outbreak control in Guinea by offering expertise, clinical care, laboratory diagnosis, and data management. They have also brought two labs to Guinea to diagnose samples. Treatments and vaccines are currently under development, but most have not been tested in humans and it could be a long time before any are proven effective.

The original host of Ebola is unknown, but it most likely came from an animal. Bats are generally considered to be the culprit. Humans become infected from contact with the blood, secretions, organs, or other bodily fluids of infected animals. Human-to-human transmission is harder, but possible through contact with bodily fluids of infected people. Health workers without proper protection, as well as people in burial ceremonies that involve direct contact with bodies, are at risk.

“We are telling the people here that, yes, this disease is dangerous and we don’t have a treatment, but you can protect yourself and we are working with health authorities to implement measures we know are effective,” says Jasarevic.

TIME Africa

Ebola Outbreak Reaches Guinea Capital

This micrograph reveals human hepatocytes infected with the Ebola virus, the cause of Ebola hemorrhagic fever.
This micrograph reveals human hepatocytes infected with the Ebola virus, the cause of Ebola hemorrhagic fever. Getty Images

Guinean officials say they have identified four cases of Ebola in the capital of 3 million people, Conakry, marking the arrival of the virus after the outbreak responsible for at least 63 deaths first began in the southern region last week

Officials in Guinea said Friday that they’ve identified four cases of Ebola in Conakry, the west African country’s capital, the first cases in the city of three million since the outbreak began in the country’s southern region last week.

At least 63 people have died of Ebola since the beginning of the outbreak, the Associated Press reports. The virus, which causes hemorrhagic fever, has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent. Officials say the four people in Conakry known to have contracted the virus were in contact with the body of an earlier victim. Anyone who took part in the burials of victims is being quarantined, the AP reports.

Liberian authorities are looking into suspected cases of Ebola in their own country, which shares a border with Guinea.


Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser