What Is Ebola?
Ebola is a serious and deadly virus transmitted by animals and humans. It
was initially detected in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Researchers named the disease after the Ebola River. Until recently, Ebola
appeared in Africa only.
Although the Ebola virus has been present for more than 35 years, the
largest outbreak began in West Africa in March 2014. This outbreak has proven
more deadly, severe, and widespread than previous outbreaks. While cases have
significantly declined since the peak of the outbreak, there’s still a chance
of further outbreaks. Learning the facts about the virus can help prevent the
spread of this deadly infection.
What Causes Ebola?
The Ebola virus belongs to the viral family Filoviridae. Scientists also call it Filovirus. These virus
types cause hemorrhagic fever or profuse bleeding inside and outside the body.
It’s accompanied by a very high fever. Ebola can be further divided into
subtypes that are named for the location where they were identified. These
- Taï Forest (previously known as Ivory Coast)
The Ebola virus likely originated in African fruit bats. The virus is
known as a zoonotic virus because it’s transmitted to humans from animals.
Humans can also transfer the virus to each other. The following animals can
transmit the virus:
- forest antelopes
Since people may handle these infected animals, the virus can be
transmitted via the animal’s blood and body fluids.
Risk Factors and Transmission
Unlike other types of viruses, Ebola can’t be transmitted through the
air or by touch alone. You must have direct contact with the bodily fluids of
someone who has it. The virus may be transmitted through:
- breast milk
These bodily fluids can all carry the Ebola virus. Transmission can
occur via the eyes, nose, mouth, broken skin, or sexual contact. Healthcare
workers are especially at risk for contracting Ebola because they often deal
with blood and bodily fluids.
Other risk factors include:
- exposure to infected objects, such as needles
- interactions with infected animals
- attending burial ceremonies of someone who has died from Ebola
- traveling to areas where a recent outbreak has occurred
What Are the Symptoms of Ebola?
According to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola
symptoms typically appear within 8 to 10 days after exposure; however, symptoms
can appear as early as two days after exposure or take as long as three weeks
Extreme fatigue is often the first and most prominent symptom. Other symptoms
- muscle pain
- stomach pain
- unexplained bleeding or bruising
If you’ve come in contact with or
provided care to someone diagnosed with Ebola or handled infected animals and
have any symptoms you should seek immediate medical attention.
How Is Ebola Diagnosed?
The early symptoms of Ebola can closely mimic other diseases like the
flu, malaria, and typhoid fever.
Blood tests can identify antibodies of the Ebola virus. These may also
- either unusually low or high white blood cell counts
- low platelet counts
- elevated liver enzymes
- abnormal coagulation factor levels
In addition to blood tests, a doctor will also consider whether others
in the patient’s community could be at risk.
Since Ebola may occur within three weeks of exposure, anyone with
possible exposure might undergo an incubation period of the same timeframe. If
no symptoms appear within 21 days, Ebola is ruled out.
How Is Ebola Treated?
The Ebola virus does not have a cure or vaccine at this time. Instead,
measures are taken to keep the person as comfortable as possible. Supportive
care measures may include:
- giving medications to maintain blood pressure
- managing electrolyte balances
- providing extra oxygen, if needed
- providing intravenous and/or oral fluids to
- treating coexisting infections
- preventing other infections from occurring
- administering blood products if indicated
Individuals can take several precautions to protect against Ebola. These
- avoiding contact with blood and body fluids
- practicing careful hand hygiene, including
washing hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- refraining from engaging in burial rituals
that involve handling the body of a person who died from Ebola
- wearing protective clothing around wildlife
- refraining from handling items a person with
Ebola has handled (this includes clothing, bedding, needles, or medical
Healthcare workers and lab technicians also must practice precautions.
This includes isolating people with Ebola and wearing protective gowns, gloves,
masks, and eye shields when coming in contact with the infected person or their
belongings. Careful protocol and disposal of these protective materials is also
vital for infection prevention. Cleaning crews should use a bleach solution to
clean floors and surfaces that may have come in contact with the Ebola virus.
Further research is being done to help prevent future outbreaks. As of
April 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports
that two possible vaccines are being tested for human safety.
People’s immune systems can respond differently to Ebola. While some may
recover from the virus without complication, others can have residual effects.
These lingering effects may include:
- joint problems
- hair loss
- extreme weakness and fatigue
- inflammation of the liver and eyes
- sensory changes
According to the Mayo Clinic, such complications can last for
a few weeks to several months. Other complications of the virus can be deadly,
- failure of multiple organs
- severe bleeding
According to the WHO, the average fatality rate for a person
infected with Ebola is 50 percent. Some virus strains are deadlier than others.
The earlier the infection is diagnosed, the better the outlook for infected
estimates that Ebola survivors have antibodies to the virus for about 10 years.
This means that once you have the virus, you aren’t necessarily immune to
getting an infection. Until a vaccine is available, it’s important to be on
your guard to avoid the spread of Ebola.