UTM’s Red Cross team held Red Cross Awareness Week last week, collecting donations for Ebola relief and hosting a guest speaker to dispel misconceptions about the disease.

On Thursday afternoon, the group hosted a lecture by Chiran Livera, a member of the Canadian Red Cross who has responded to people in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. An international delegate, Livera has been a volunteer for the Red Cross for over 10 years and recently became a staff member.

During his lecture, Livera mentioned that the Ebola virus originated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country in West Africa.

“This is important because Red Cross, the World Health Organization, and the government have actually been responding to Ebola for over 30 years in different parts of the world,” said Livera. “However, it has mostly been observed in Africa such as in the Congo and Uganda.”

Livera, who is currently the head of disaster management for the Ontario Red Cross, was also peripherally involved in another Ebola operation in 2008 in Uganda, in which 10 people were affected. The current outbreak is the worst that they have experienced.

The hosts of the Ebola virus are usually fruit bats and primates such as monkeys and gorillas, both of which are abundant in West Africa. The virus is transmitted from the hosts to humans, though it is not known how.

Livera stressed that Ebola can only be transmitted through bodily fluids; it is not an airborne virus. He said that burial rituals in West Africa are a major cause of Ebola transmission.

He said, “The whole ritual around the funeral is the most likely scenario of how people are getting infected, because it is very common to touch people when handling their body. And when someone dies, their body excretes more fluids.”

Livera also spoke of the infrastructural problems in West Africa. Healthcare systems are nonexistent and sanitation is extremely low, he said.

“Can Ebola occur in Canada? Sure it can,” said Livera. “A case here or a dozen cases there—but that’s about it, because of the health care systems and because of personal hygiene. So, because West Africa has very poor infrastructure, it is very easy for the disease to spread—not just Ebola, but any disease.”

The three countries primarily affected by Ebola are Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia.

“It is extremely rare to get Ebola, and it is 100% preventable,” said Livera. “But once you get it, the chances of living are very slim.”

The first 21 days after a person comes into contact with bodily fluids are the incubation period; this is when symptoms or signs of Ebola can occur. The first signs include headaches, fever, and aching muscles.

“So, when we’re hearing these stories about a nurse in the U.S. who has Ebola, usually what they’re talking about is that 21-day incubation period,” Livera said. “So how do you know if that’s Ebola or not? You don’t really know. You may see these signs, and then suddenly it gets dramatically worse. Two things can happen after 21 days—nothing, or you die. If nothing happens to you after 21 days, then you don’t have Ebola.”

According to the lecture, there are currently 13,000 Ebola cases in West Africa, and almost 6,000 people have died—almost 50% of cases, which is considered a fairly low fatality rate for the disease. Livera said the Ebola fatality rate can rise up to 90%.

There are over 150 international staff from the Red Cross who work in the Ebola operation, along with 8,000 volunteers.

The focus of the Red Cross is on Ebola education, social mobilization, the management of dead bodies, and contact tracing. “We focus on prevention. In many countries like Guinea, it is very common to see people not washing their hands before they eat,” Livera said. “That’s just how it is—there’s no access to clean water. Washing your hands before you eat is one of the most important ways of preventing Ebola.”

In Sierra Leone, the Red Cross is running the largest hospital, called Ebola Treatment Centre.

“It is important to remember that the people [who] are responding are extremely courageous,” said Livera. He finished his lecture by saying that Ebola has definitely not hit its peak: “It’s going to get worse before it gets better. We haven’t gotten on top of the disease yet; we’ve only gotten ahead of it.”

The president of the UTM Red Cross, Tallal Sardar, commented at the end of the lecture. “As students, we have the power to make a difference in the lives of other people. I feel that it’s our responsibility to implement and make a difference,” he said. “Overall, we had a great week. It was great to educate students about the crisis of Ebola and some of the misconceptions.”