Ebola virus disease, also called Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a severe, often fatal illness in humans.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks; one occurred in a village near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the other was in a remote area of Sudan. Long confined to sub-Saharan Africa, the most serious outbreak of Ebola to date emerged in West Africa in 2014.
Symptoms and Transmission
Though highly infectious, Ebola is not easy to contract. It is only carried in bodily fluids, such as blood, sweat, salvia, mucus, urine, vomit, tears, semen and feces. While many of its early symptoms resemble influenza, Ebola is not an airborne virus like the flu.
Ebola can only enter the body through open cuts or abrasions on the skin, or through unprotected mucous membranes in places such as the eyes, nose or mouth.
While not a foodborne illness, people can still contract Ebola when eating meat from or coming in contact with infected carrier animals, such as pigs, chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines. Ongoing research is being conducted on other animals that may be potential Ebola carriers.
The virus can survive in a dried state for several hours outside the body, on surfaces like doorknobs and countertops. However, the Ebola-infected body fluid can survive for days outside the body in wet conditions and at room temperature.
The average time it takes to develop symptoms after contracting the disease is eight to 10 days, but the incubation period can be anywhere from two to 21 days. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health, people with Ebola do not become contagious until they start to show symptoms.
Often mistaken for the flu or similar ailments, early symptoms of Ebola include:
Fever greater than 101.5 °F
Unexplained bleeding or bruising
Loss of appetite
As the disease progresses, these symptoms can become more acute and may be accompanied by:
Internal and/or external bleeding
Purple spots on the skin
Impaired kidney or liver function
The death rate for infected individuals ranges from 50 to 90 percent, depending on the strain of the virus. The WHO estimates the mortality rate of the 2014 virus to be around 70 percent.
Once a person has developed symptoms of Ebola, the virus typically remains in his or her system for six to 16 days.
There is no known cure for Ebola at this time, though two possible vaccines were undergoing evaluation as of October 2014. However, recovery from Ebola is possible, and steps can be taken by health care workers to increase the likelihood of survival.
Recovery from Ebola depends on good, supportive clinical care and the patient’s immune response. According to the CDC, the following basic interventions, when used early, can significantly improve the chances of survival:
Providing IV fluids and balancing electrolytes
Maintaining oxygen status and blood pressure
Treating other infections if they occur
Though the most dangerous period of Ebola is in the days and weeks following the onset of symptoms, full recovery can take months to complete.
People who recover from an Ebola infection develop antibodies that last for at least 10 years. Plasma from Ebola survivors is currently being explored as a possible treatment option.
The people most at risk for contracting Ebola are individuals who have been in areas with ongoing Ebola outbreaks, health care workers who have treated patients with Ebola and individuals who have been in close contact with an Ebola sufferer.
If you travel to or are in an area affected by an Ebola outbreak, the CDC recommends you do the following:
Practice careful hygiene. For example, wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and avoid contact with blood and body fluids.
Do not handle items that may have come in contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids (such as clothes, bedding, needles and medical equipment).
Avoid direct contact with the bodies of people who have died from Ebola.
Avoid contact with blood, fluids and raw meat prepared from carrier animals.
After you return, monitor your health for 21 days and seek medical care immediately if you develop symptoms of Ebola.