Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a dangerous, deadly, and rare disease caused by infection with 1 of 4 viruses in the Filoviridae family that are known to cause disease in humans: Ebola virus, Sudan virus, Taï Forest virus, and Bundibugyo virus. Ebola affects humans and primates; however, a fifth virus, Reston virus, has only caused disease in primates.

Ebola was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The natural reservoir of the Ebola virus is unknown; however, researchers believe the virus is animal borne and that bats may be the natural hosts. Because the exact reservoir is currently unidentified, the manner through which the virus first appears in humans at the commencement of an outbreak is not known.

The Ebola virus isn’t new and has reared its ugly head since 1976. However, the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the largest in history, and this outbreak is the first Ebola epidemic.  More than 3400 people have died from this instance, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Ebola virus is spread via various methods. Whereas Ebola is highly infectious, it is not considered very contagious because it does not spread through the air (though contaminated droplets can be airborne briefly). High-risk exposures include direct contact through broken skin or by way of mucous membranes in the mouth, nose, or eyes with blood or other bodily fluids of an infected person (urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, semen). It can also be transmitted through sharing of needles and by contact with infected animals. Ebola virus can live in semen for up to 3 months. 


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Examples of low-risk exposures via close contact include household cohabitation with an Ebola virus patient, being within 3 feet of an infected individual for prolonged periods of time without protective equipment, or having direct contact, such as shaking hands. Being in the same facility, such as a hospital, or walking by an infected person is not considered close contact.

What to Look for?  

Symptoms of Ebola virus include a fever greater than 101.5°F (38.6°C), severe headache, muscle pain and weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and unexplained bleeding or bruising. Other symptoms may include rash, chest pain, sore throat, red eyes, and difficulty breathing or swallowing. A patient is symptomatic from 2 to 21 days after exposure to Ebola, averaging 8 to 10 days. Persons under investigation would have epidemiologic risk factors within the past 21 days before onset of symptoms, have been in an area where Ebola virus is active, or have handled primates or bats from disease-endemic areas. Confirmation would be indicated through laboratory diagnostic evidence.

Is the US Prepared to Contain the Ebola Virus?

The Ebola virus is new to US soil. Many questions are being asked regarding the readiness of hospitals and health care workers. Recovery from Ebola is contingent upon excellent clinical care. It’s critical for health care workers to wear protective equipment, such as masks, gowns, gloves, and goggles, to avoid exposure.

The White House has issued a Fact Sheet  in response to the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, and reports that US public health officials are ready to respond to domestic cases of the Ebola virus. However, there are currently no vaccines or specific treatment methods. According to WHO, the fatality rate can be up to 90%. Patients are treated by way of supportive care, including providing fluids and electrolytes. Some antiviral drugs are being introduced as well. Hospitals are on high alert and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued extensive guidelines and recommendations. 

Communication will play an important role in curtailing the spread of Ebola in the US. Public health officials need to disseminate information providing frequent updates across multiple media resources and informing health care workers and the public about the disease status and the plan of action.

Reference

  1. Ebola fast facts. CNN website. October 8, 2014. http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/11/health/ebola-fast-facts/index.html.
  2. Outbreaks chronology: Ebola virus disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Updated October 8, 2014. http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/history/chronology.html.