What Are Symptoms, Treatment, and Risks of Ebola?
Ebola virus disease (or Ebola hemorrhagic fever) starts with a high fever, headache, sore throat, lack of appetite, and muscle and joint aches. Vomiting, diarrhea, and a rash follow the initial symptoms in about three days. After three to four more days, roughly 50 percent of Ebola disease patients begin to bleed both internally (the blood vessels literally start leaking blood) and externally (blood seeps from the eyes, ears, nose, gums, or puncture wounds from injections).
Ebola virus can be difficult to diagnose because its early symptoms mirror those of cholera, typhoid fever, malaria, and other diseases. The time between contracting the Ebola virus and first signs of infection varies — once infected, some people show symptoms within a day, but others take up to three weeks to become ill. Currently, there is no vaccine or cure for Ebola, and its fatality rate varies by outbreak, ranging from 60 to 90 percent. Patients who receive medical care at early stages of infection generally have a better chance of survival.
As of summer 2014, Africa was the only continent to experience outbreaks of the Ebola virus. The 2014 epidemic in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria is the largest, longest, and most deadly Ebola outbreak on record. In late August 2014, the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Central Africa declared that a different strain of the virus had claimed at least two lives. Click here to view a timeline of the Ebola virus, from its discovery to 2014.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintains that there is no significant risk of an Ebola flare-up in the United States. The CDC established safety measures for people who have Ebola and who are brought into the U.S. for treatment. Commercial airline crews are trained to look for the symptoms of Ebola and other infectious diseases in passengers flying from places where such diseases may originate. Travelers who appear to be sick may be quarantined as a precaution.
Even if a person infected with Ebola did manage to get on a plane and travel to the U.S., the CDC is confident that chances of the virus spreading to other people on the flight or in the United States are low.
How an Ebola outbreak starts
West African fruit bats are believed to be the natural host of the Ebola virus, although humans reportedly have been infected by chimpanzees, gorillas, macaques and other monkeys, antelope, and porcupines. The exact circumstances that cause Ebola to jump from species are not known; infection in humans likely occurs after the virus is transmitted to one person via contact with an infected animal’s bodily fluids.
Someone may have close contact with a sick or dead animal in the rainforest (perhaps even without knowing it) and develop the disease. Another possible means of human infection may occur when a person prepares contaminated animal meat as food. Fruit bats and small monkeys are a mainstay in the diet of some West Africans, and cleaning or preparing a contaminated animal before cooking could transmit the virus to the handler.
How Ebola is transmitted from person to person
Once one person is infected with Ebola, the virus can spread to others — only by way of direct contact with blood or bodily fluids from an infected person. Those at highest risk of falling ill are family members or healthcare workers who are tending to a sick person. Cleaning up vomit or diarrhea from an Ebola patient is a common means of person-to-person transmission. It’s also possible to contract Ebola from a contaminated needle or from other medical equipment.
Compared to other viruses, Ebola is relatively hard to contract. (Many other viruses, such as measles, influenza, typhoid fever, and even bubonic plague, are much more contagious.) Some facts to keep in mind about Ebola:
Ebola is not airborne. You cannot catch the virus from being near an infected person who sneezes or coughs.
Ebola cannot be contracted by either eating cooked food or from drinking water.
An infected person who is not yet showing symptoms of the Ebola virus is not yet contagious.
The potential for widespread Ebola outbreaks remains low because the virus spreads only by direct contact with secretions from someone who is showing signs of the disease.
Becoming infected with Ebola is unlikely for those who take precautions (such as, using great care when cleaning up body fluids from a sick person). However, Ebola differs from most other viruses in a few important ways:
The Ebola virus can survive outside of a host for up to two days at room temperature. Hypodermic needles and other medical equipment, or even the clothes of a sick person, can be contaminated for as long as 48 hours.
Ebola doesn’t die quickly after its host does. The corpse of an Ebola victim remains contagious. Thus, embalming an infected deceased person or performing other funeral rites may spread the disease.
The semen of a male Ebola survivor may be infectious for as long as two months after his recovery.
Why Ebola spreads in Africa but could be contained in the United States
What if a person walked into an American hospital with Ebola? The chances of an outbreak on American soil are improbable.
The American medical infrastructure has a fast and advanced system for reporting infectious illnesses. The patient would be isolated, other hospitals and organizations (including the CDC) would receive notification, and efforts to track down others who came in contact with the sick person would be quick. American hospitals have adequate supplies of infection-control equipment (isolation beds, gloves, gowns, and masks) that will prevent the spread of the disease. American healthcare professionals are highly trained to keep themselves safe while treating contagious patients.
Why are things different in Africa? Poverty encouraged Africans to cross national borders to find work, so the 2014 outbreak occurred simultaneously across multiple nations, which hampered containment efforts. West African nations average only one to two doctors for every 100,000 people, and most healthcare facilities don’t have the funds to purchase adequate medical equipment — sometimes they lack even soap and water for hand washing.
Superstitious of foreign medical teams in protective suits, Africans frequently fled available health assistance. Some Africans believe sorcery causes Ebola and that doctors kill patients, prompting townspeople to descend upon and “free” Ebola patients from hospitals and isolation facilities. Traditional African funeral rites involve washing and cleaning the body, which further exposed populations to the virus.
As of fall 2014, the World Health Organization’s predictions put Ebola in the forefront of infectious diseases into the new year. While experimental treatments offer some promise of curbing the death rate from Ebola, the therapies are nowhere near ready to address widespread infection.