Ebola is a deadly disease caused by a virus. Almost everyone who becomes infected die from it. The risk of getting Ebola is an obvious concern for people living in, or travelling in, countries with outbreaks of the disease, as well as for health professionals treating those who become infected.
Key Facts about Ebola
• Ebola is spread through direct contact with any body fluid from a person who is infected and has symptoms.
• Ebola is not spread through the air (for example, when someone coughs or sneezes).
• Ebola symptoms develop within 21 days of the virus entering a person’s body. If one is worried about having been exposed to the virus but doesn’t develop symptoms within this time, they are unlikely to have been infected.
• Once infected, the earlier medical care is started, the better the chance of survival.
• There is not yet a medicine to cure Ebola, though there is hope of some.
What is Ebola?
Ebola virus disease is a haemorrhagic disease. Haemorrhagic diseases cause the person infected to have unexplained bleeding at a stage of the illness. Other such haemorrhagic diseases include Lassa fever and Yellow fever.
Four types of the Ebola virus are known to cause disease. Of these, the Zaire ebolavirus is responsible for the recent outbreak in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.
Outbreaks are thought to start when infected animals pass on the virus to people through human contact with body fluids or raw meat of the infected animals. Such animals include bats and monkeys.
What are the symptoms?
• Tiredness and weakness
• Loss of appetite
• Stomach pain
• Muscle pain
• Sore throat
• Chest pain and coughing
• Unexplained bleeding and bruising.
• A rash
• Seizures (fits).
How is Ebola diagnosed?
The early symptoms of Ebola overlaps with those of several common diseases like flu and malaria. This makes early diagnosis difficult, except when there is already a high index of suspicion of infection. This suspicion, together with the symptoms present and results of blood tests help the doctor tie up the diagnosis.
People who are most likely to be infected are:
- People living in, or travelling in, countries with an Ebola outbreak
- Family members of someone with Ebola
- Health professionals treating Ebola patients
- People who have direct contact with the bodies of people who have died of Ebola (for example, during burials).
How is Ebola treated?
Currently, there isn’t any definitive treatment or drug for treating Ebola. However, the management of the condition is based on two main strategies:
When someone is suspected of having Ebola, the person is isolated in a separate room where they are examined and treated. Whenever anyone enters the room, they put on protective clothing that covers every part of their body so that their skin or other part doesn’t come in contact with the virus.
This involves keeping the person as healthy as possible, to enable their immune system fight off the infection.
Supportive care involves three main things:
- Treating the person’s symptoms; which includes paracetamol to help reduce the fever and pain, and drugs to help stop the vomiting.
- Preventing and treating dehydration caused by the excessive vomiting and diarrhoea. This may be achieved by giving special drinks (called rehydration solutions) or have fluids put directly into a vein as a drip.
- Managing other problems that the infection can cause, including severe bleeding, sepsis, organ damage, and organ failure.
Several treatments are still being developed, and it has been observed that transfusions of blood from Ebola survivors to those infected have also helped some people recover.
Two vaccines have been created to stop people becoming ill if they are exposed to the virus.
How can I avoid getting Ebola?
• Frequent washing of hands with soap and water, or use of an alcohol-based hand sanitiser.
• Avoiding contact with anyone else’s blood or other body fluids.
• Avoiding the use of any item that have come into contact with an infected person’s body fluids.
• Avoiding funeral or burial rituals that require handling the body of someone who has died from Ebola.
• Avoiding contact with, or eating animals that may carry the virus.
What will happen to me if I get Ebola?
The mortality from Ebola disease is generally very high. But by and large, the chances of survival is dependent on some factors including:
- The type of Ebola virus responsible. The Zaire ebolavirus is the most deadly. In previous outbreaks it has killed up to 90 in every 100 people who were infected. But in the most recent outbreak, this figure improved to around 60 to 70 in every 100 dying.
- The speed of intervention. Starting supportive care early gives the body a better chance of getting rid of the virus.
Quality of care. People who receive good-quality care are more likely to recover. Some research suggests that, with better care, the chance of dying from Ebola is much lower, with around 20 to 30 in every 100 people dying.