Update: As of October 1, 2014, the West African Ebola outbreak has spread to at least five countries, with 6,574 cases—3,626 confirmed by laboratory tests—and 3,091 deaths. The first case diagnosed in the U.S., a person that traveled from West Africa to Dallas, Texas, was announced on September 30.
An Ebola virus disease outbreak centered on the West African country of Guinea has claimed more than 80 lives so far. You may have some questions about just how serious this disease is (very), what specific treatments are available (none) and how likely it is to get to your area (not very, unless you live in one of the countries bordering Guinea). Here’s a primer:
What Is Ebola?
Ebola virus disease, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, can be caused by any one of four species of virus belonging to the genus Ebolavirus: Ebola virus (EBOV); Bundibugyo virus (BDBV); Sudan virus (SUDV); and Tai Forest virus (TAFV).
The disease and virus gets its name from the Ebola River, which flows near the village of Yambuku in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the site of one of the first outbreaks of the virus in 1976, along with Nzara, a town in what is now South Sudan.
How Does It Spread?
Ebola is contagious, but it’s not an airborne infection like colds or the flu. People contract the virus by getting into close contact with blood and other bodily fluids of infected people or animals.
Typically, Ebola jumps from animals to humans when people prepare or eat animals known to harbor the virus – fruit bats, monkeys or apes, and some antelopes.
Ebola spreads from human to human via health care workers or family members treating infected people. Any burial ceremony where mourners touch the corpse of an infected person can also play a role. Sexual transmission is not the most commonly observed route of transmission, but men can still transmit the virus through their semen up to seven weeks after recovering from Ebola, according to the World Health Organization.
What Are The Symptoms?
Usually one of the first signs of Ebola is a sudden fever, along with weakness, muscle pain, sore throat and headache. Later, sufferers may experience vomiting, diarrhea, rash, internal and external bleeding, and impaired liver and kidney function. The delay between infection and first sign of symptoms can be anywhere from 2 to 21 days.
Ebola virus outbreaks are a serious danger to public health: they typically have a fatality rate of up to 90 percent.
Is There A Cure?
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine to prevent Ebola infection, and there are no specific drug treatments available either. Patients usually need intensive hospital care, including fluid treatments to combat dehydration, as well as blood transfusions.
What Is This Latest Outbreak Like?
As of Wednesday afternoon, the outbreak has resulted in 134 suspected ebola cases, with 40 of those confirmed by laboratory results, according to WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic, who spoke to us from the Guinean capital of Conakry. 84 people have died so far.
The outbreak started in southern Guinea, but has since spread to the capital and to at least one other country. Guinea and Liberia both have laboratory tests confirming the presence of the virus, while there are several suspected Ebola cases and deaths in Sierra Leone.
“We want to put out a balanced message,” Jasarevic says. “It’s a serious disease, highly contagious, with a high fatality ratio, and we don’t have a vaccine. But at the same time, we know this disease, and we know what measures to take.”
What’s Being Done To Control It?
Numerous agencies, including the WHO, Doctors Without Borders, and the Red Cross are assisting the Guinean health ministry in getting the word out to citizens about methods of avoiding Ebola infection. People are being advised to avoid handling or eating the animals that are known to harbor the virus, to avoid coming into contact with the body fluids of infected people or corpses, and to adopt strict hygiene routines including regular handwashing.
Agencies are also keeping tabs on people that have had contact with infected patients, watching to see if they develop signs of Ebola virus disease.
How did this particular outbreak begin, and just how long will it last? Experts don’t know yet, and Jasarevic says its too soon to predict the answers.