In this day and age, no other virus strikes as much fear in people as the Ebola virus, the cause of a massive fatal outbreak in West Africa.
According to a recent report by the World Health Organization (WHO), there are over 21,600 confirmed and suspected cases of Ebola, commonly in countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia. As of January 18, 8,600 people have died. This is the largest Ebola outbreak in recorded history.
What is Ebola?
Previously known as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever, Ebola is a serious and fatal disease transmitted by humans, non-human primates(monkeys, chimpanzees and gorillas), and fruit bats. The disease is caused by infection with one of five Ebola virus strains.
The five identified Ebola virus strains are:
- Ebola virus (Zaire ebolavirus)
- Sudan virus (Sudan ebolavirus)
- Tai Forest virus (Tai Forest ebolavirus, formerly known as Côte d’Ivoire ebolavirus)
- Bundibugyo virus (Bundibugyoebolavirus)
- Reston virus (Reston ebolavirus)
The first four Ebola virus strains are known to cause disease in humans, while the fifth virus has caused disease in non-human primates.
The History of Ebola
Ebola was first discovered in the year 1976, near the Ebola River, in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. Since then, outbreaks have sporadically appeared in Africa.
The natural reservoir host of the virus remains largely unknown. But based on evidence and the nature of similar viruses, scientists believe that the Ebola virus is animal-borne, with fruit bats being the most likely reservoir.
The Ebola virus has been around for more than three decades, but there was an outbreak in March 2014 which began in West Africa. This recent outbreak is more deadly, more severe, and widespread compared to previous outbreaks.
Signs and Symptoms
After the Ebola virus enters the body, it kills cells and make some of them explode. The virus destroys a person’s immune system, causing massive internal hemorrhage (bleeding inside the body), and eventually damaging almost every body organ.
The signs and symptoms of Ebola infection include:
- Severe headache
- Myalgia (muscle pain)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained bruising or bleeding
Symptoms typically appear anywhere from 2 – 21 days after exposure to the virus, but the average is 8 – 10 days.
Recovering from Ebola infection depends entirely on patient management and supportive clinical care, as well as the patient’s immune response. Those who recover from the infection develop antibodies that last for up to 10 years, possibly longer. However, it remains unknown whether or not those who recover from the disease is immune for life or if they can become infected with a different strain of the virus.
There have been reports that some Ebola survivors have developed life-long complications like vision and joint problems.
How is Ebola Transmitted?
Because the natural reservoir host of Ebola viruses remains unknown, the way in which the virus first appears in a human at the beginning of an outbreak cannot be identified. However, researchers believe that the first person to be infected has had contact with an infected animal, like a primate or fruit bat. This is called a spillover event.
After the spillover event, person-to-person transmission follows suit, leading to a large number of people infected by the virus. In some previous Ebola outbreaks, primates were also affected by the virus, with multiple spillover events occurring when people ate or made contact with infected primates.
When infection occurs in humans, the Ebola virus can be spread to others through direct contact, through broken skin or mucous membranes (like in the eyes, mouth or nose), blood and bodily fluids (i.e. saliva, sweat, urine, vomit, feces, breast milk, semen) of an infected person, objects that have been contaminated with the virus (i.e. needles and syringes), as well as infected animals.
The virus is not spread through the air, by water, or in general, by food. But in Africa, the virus may be spread as a result of handling wild meat (wild animals hunted for food) and contact with infected fruit bats. Mosquitoes and other insects do not transmit Ebola virus.
Healthcare providers who care for Ebola patients, as well as family and friends who are in close contact with patients infected with Ebola are at the highest risk of getting sick. During outbreaks, the disease can quickly spread within various healthcare settings like in clinics and hospitals, especially when the staff are not wearing appropriate personal protective gear.
Currently, there is no FDA-approved medicine or vaccine available to treat patients infected with Ebola. Symptoms and complications are treated as they appear. When applied early, the following basic interventions can help improve the patient’s chances of survival:
- Providing IV (intravenous) fluids and balancing electrolytes
- Maintaining blood pressure and oxygen status
- Immediate treatment of other infections if they occur
There are several experimental vaccines and treatments for Ebola that are currently underway, though they have not yet been fully tested for safety and efficacy.
Recovery from this disease depends on palliative care and the patient’s immune response.
How Can Ebola Infections Be Prevented?
Since there is currently no vaccine or treatment for Ebola infection, what you need to do is to take the necessary precautions, especially when you are in a country where an Ebola outbreak has occurred.
Avoid close contact with wild animals and avoid handling bushmeat.
Avoiding potential carriers, both alive and dead, can help prevent the spread of the virus. The known carriers of the Ebola virus are:
- Fruit bats
Avoid contact with blood and other bodily fluids of people infected with Ebola or those with unknown illnesses.
- Do not handle any medical equipment contaminated with blood or other bodily fluids.
- Practice strict control measures if you are a healthcare provider. Isolate infected persons and use personal protective gear (i.e. gowns, goggles, masks, gloves) appropriately.
- Use and disinfect instruments and equipment properly, especially those that are used to treat or care for patients with Ebola.
Know the signs and symptoms and see a healthcare provider immediately should they develop.
- During and after travelling, make sure to closely monitor your health. Seek medical attention immediately if you develop fever or any other symptoms.
- If you develop signs and symptoms, make sure to inform your healthcare provider that you have travelled to a country or region with a case of Ebola infection.
If you have travelled to or are currently in a place affected by an Ebola outbreak, make sure to do the following:
- Practice careful hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
- Do not handle items that may have come in contact with blood or bodily fluids of an infected person (i.e. clothes, bedding, and medical equipment).
- Avoid burial/funeral rites that require handling the body of a person who has died from Ebola.
- Avoid close contact with bats and primates or blood, bodily fluids, and raw meat prepared from such animals.
- Avoid healthcare facilities in West Africa where Ebola patients are being treated.
- After you return from a region with known cases of Ebola infection, monitor your health for 21 days and seek immediate medical care if you develop signs and symptoms of Ebola.