You are likely aware that several countries in West Africa are battling an Ebola outbreak. To make matters more serious, there have been four confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States and one of these patients has died. Due to the lethality of this virus and its presence on US soil, we find ourselves asking a number of questions: Are we safe? How contagious is it? Is there any chance that I have the Ebola virus? Is the Ebola outbreak going to turn into a worldwide pandemic? To help put the current Ebola outbreak in perspective, below is a general overview of some of the most important facts to know about the Ebola virus.
What is Ebola?
Ebola is a dangerous and often lethal viral infection.
Where did it come from?
Ebola was first discovered in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Scientists believe that humans contracted the virus by eating gorilla meat. This is similar to the ‘hunter theory‘ for the spread of HIV from monkeys to humans. It is now believed that bats are the primary carrier for the virus.
What areas are currently affected by the Ebola outbreak?
To date, there are only three major countries in West Africa experiencing a major outbreak: Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. However, other countries such as Nigeria have reported confirmed cases of Ebola within their borders.
Am I at risk for contracting the virus?
Unless you recently visited one of three affected West African countries, your risk of contracting the virus is virtually zero. Unlike other recent airborne viral outbreaks like SARS, the Ebola virus can only be spread through direct contact with an infected person. Specifically, Ebola is spread through contact with bodily fluids (e.g. blood, urine, feces, sweat and vomit). Though the virus is transmittable, only an infected person exhibiting symptoms is contagious.
How do I know if I’ve contracted the virus?
The signs and symptoms of Ebola are non-specific and patients typically exhibit them after a week of contracting the virus. Symptoms may appear as early as two days or as late as three weeks after initial infection. Symptoms include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, weakness and stomach pain. More uncommon symptoms include a rash, chest pain, bleeding and sore throat.
What exactly does Ebola do to the body?
Like most viruses, Ebola enters the body by entering a host cell where it releases its genomic material, specifically its RNA. This viral RNA uses the host cell’s machinery to create copies of itself, which in turn infects other cells. What makes Ebola so devastating is it’s ability to attack and replicate in virtually every organ of the body. This causes an overstimulation of the body’s inflammatory response, causing the flu-like symptoms seen in early stage Ebola patients. The virus also causes bleeding and impairs the body’s normal clotting mechanism, making bleeding even more severe. Loss of blood volume and decreased organ perfusion ultimately leads to organ failure and death.
Can Ebola be cured?
To date, there is no cure for Ebola and treatment is mainly focused on supportive care.
How does Ebola compare with past outbreaks?
The current outbreak is the deadliest viral outbreak in over 35 years. While diseases such as the mumps, measles and malaria are far more contagious, Ebola is one of the world’s most lethal viral infections; Ebola’s fatality rate exceeds that of SARS, typhoid, polio and smallpox.
How many cases of Ebola have been diagnosed in the United States?
As of October 31, 2014, there have been four documented cases of Ebola in the United States. The first patient to be diagnosed with the Ebola virus in the United States was Thomas Duncan, a Liberian native. Mr. Duncan received care at a Dallas hospital and later died from the virus. Two nurses that took care of Mr. Duncan contracted the virus despite allegedly following strict protocol; both of the nurses has been declared Ebola-free. The fourth patient diagnosed was a doctor who returned from Guinea. He has also been declared Ebola-free.
What can I do to protect myself?
For people living outside of the outbreak countries, the best advice is to remain calm but vigilant. As mentioned, Ebola is not airborne and requires the transmission of bodily fluids from one person to another. If you have travelled to one of the outbreak countries and experience flu-like symptoms or were in contact with someone with Ebola symptoms, it is recommended to seek medical care.
While there have been four confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States, there is no reason for panic. Perhaps best stated by infectious disease specialist and professor at Dartmouth Geisel School of Medicine Dr. Tim Lahey: “I think the big thing to focus on is that people are naturally curious about this: it’s exotic, it’s new, it’s concerning, it’s getting a lot of media play. Knowing that there are in fact incredibly low odds of this causing any problems in the United States or in the developed world, and even if it does, the likely scope of this is going to be small. Ebola is novel and unusual but a very small impact compared to malaria, HIV, and TB.”