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Ebola: A Medical Drama Unfolds

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WebMD Health News

Aug. 22, 2014 -- Ebola has been raging through the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Liberia for nearly 9 months. With 2,615 cases and 1,427 deaths so far, it’s the deadliest single outbreak of Ebola yet, according to the most recent update from the World Health Organization. At the current rate of illness, experts project the numbers from this epidemic will soon eclipse total cases and deaths of all other documented Ebola outbreaks combined.

It’s also the first time Ebola infection has touched U.S. shores, igniting the public’s interest along with its worst fears.

This is the story of how the epidemic started and the dramatic rescue effort that brought two infected Americans home.

Oct. 15, 2013 -- Dr. Kent Brantly, his wife Amber, who is a nurse, and their two children depart for Liberia to serve a 2-year medical mission with the nonprofit relief agency Samaritan’s Purse. He is posted at ELWA Hospital in Monrovia.

“Ebola was not on the radar,” Brantly says.

Dec. 6, 2013 -- A 2-year-old child dies in Guinea from a rapidly advancing illness that includes fever, black stool, and vomiting. A 3-year-old sister, their mother, grandmother, and great aunt also die after having the same symptoms.

Jan. 25, 2014 -- The village midwife who treated the family in Guinea, as well as many others in the area, is hospitalized. She dies 8 days later.

March 10 -- Hospitals and clinics around Gueckedou and Macenta, an area that touches the borders of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, alert the Guinea government’s Ministry of Health to an outbreak of infectious disease characterized by fever, severe diarrhea, and vomiting.

March 12 -- Local teams from Medecins sans Frontieres, MSF, also known as Doctors Without Borders, are alerted to the outbreak. They notify their European office.

March 18 -- Disease detectives from MSF arrive to take blood samples for testing. The samples are sent to biosafety labs in France and Germany for analysis. Tests confirm the Zaire strain of the Ebola virus, with an initial 86% death rate.

End of March -- Investigators count 111 suspected cases and 79 deaths.

One of the main ways the virus is spread is through local burial customs that involve kissing a corpse.

“In the hours after death with Ebola, that is when the body is most infectious, because the body is loaded with the virus. Everybody who touches the corpse is another infection,” Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs and governmental relations for Samaritan’s Purse, said in congressional testimony.

Brantly says the medical team at ELWA hospital first learned the Ebola infection had spread to Liberia in March.

June 2014 -- The medical team at ELWA hospital treats its first Ebola patient. “We began preparing for the worst,” Brantly says. “We were ready.”

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