Over the last few months, the Ebola virus has been the subject of countless articles and news reports. Of course, the cause of all of this attention has been the 2014 Ebola outbreak in western Africa. To date, the virus has only had a very minor impact in the United States. Given the severity of symptoms caused by Ebola it is certainly worthwhile to familiarize yourself with this highly dangerous adversary.
The Ebola virus isn’t a new opponent for health officials, as it was first discovered in the African countries of Sudan and Zaire in 1976. Though this initial outbreak only sickened a small number of people, the virus quickly earned a lethal reputation. The first Ebola outbreak, which was concentrated in Sudan (now South Sudan) killed 151 of its 284 victims, giving it a mortality rate of 53 percent.
The second outbreak, occurring only months later in neighboring Zaire (now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo), was even deadlier. Of the 318 patients infected by the virus, only 38 survived their bout of Ebola, meaning that the Ebola virus killed nearly 90 percent of these individuals.
Ebola has resurfaced several times in the proceeding decades, usually afflicting countries on the African continent. Up until 2014, the deadliest recorded outbreak struck the nation of Uganda, sickening 425 people and killing 224 from 2000 to 2001. There have been approximately thirty outbreaks of Ebola since the 1970s.
A member of the Filoviridae virus family, Ebola is believed to have first affected African fruit bats. The virus has five subtypes in total; Bundibugyo, Reston, Sudan, Taï Forest and Zaire. Each has been named after their location of discovery, and three of these subtypes (Bundibugyo, Sudan, and Zaire) have sickened large numbers of people on the African continent. Aside from humans, Ebola can also infect and spread among monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, forest antelopes and porcupines.
Not surprisingly, contracting Ebola does not make for a pleasant experience. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people with the virus tend to develop the following symptoms:
The incubation period for Ebola can vary widely, ranging from two to twenty-one days (the term “incubation period” refers to the amount of time between disease exposure and the first indications of symptoms). After the incubation period ends, patients infected by the virus may initially develop fever, fatigue, sore throat and headaches. As the disease progresses, the patient begins to suffer from watery diarrhea, vomiting and a body-wide rash. In addition, the liver and kidney could be unable to function properly, and the body might be stricken with both internal and external bleeding. In some Ebola victims, blood leaks through the gums and/or is found in the patient’s stools.
Methods of Transmission
Though medical researchers have known about Ebola since the 1970s, it is still not entirely clear how Ebola outbreaks start. The prevailing theory is that the virus is transferred to a human patient via contact with an infected animal’s blood, secretions, bodily fluids or organs. Once this event occurs, the virus can then spread to other people in the same sort of manner.
During an outbreak, new patients contract Ebola from direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids or blood, which seeps out through breaks in a patient’s skin or mucous membranes. Some bodily fluids that can spread the Ebola virus are listed below:
Aside from infected bodily fluids, a person can also contract Ebola from touching contaminated countertops, doorknobs and other dry surfaces. The CDC states that the Ebola virus can subsist on such surfaces for up to several hours.
With the recent outbreak, many have wondered if Ebola can be spread through the air. On a PDF entitled “How Ebola is Spread,” the CDC says the following regarding this subject:
“There is no evidence that Ebola is spread by coughing or sneezing. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with Ebola; the virus is not transmitted through the air (like measles virus). However, large droplets (splashes or sprays) of respiratory or other secretions from a person who is sick with Ebola could be infectious, and therefore certain precautions (called standard, contact, and droplet precautions) are recommended for use in healthcare settings to prevent the transmission of Ebola from patients to healthcare personnel and other patients or family members”
Since the FDA has yet to approve any vaccines or medicines for Ebola, doctors must instead address symptoms as they develop. In keeping with this strategy, a person with this virus is given certain treatments as needed, such as intravenous fluids, oxygen and blood transfusions. Doctors will also try to keep the patient’s blood pressure at a healthy level. If administered early enough in the course of the disease, these methods can increase an infected patient’s chances of recovery. There have been efforts to create medicines and vaccines for Ebola, but these are still in the process of being developed and tested.
Whether or not a patient survives Ebola hinges largely on the medical care they receive, along with how well their immune system responds to this deadly threat. Those who recover from the virus emerge better equipped to fight it afterwards, as they receive Ebola antibodies for a decade or longer.