Thousands of people in Africa have died from the tropical disease Ebola. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has declared this the largest outbreak of Ebola in world history. Many health organizations, including the CDC, are working hard to care for the sick and help prevent the spread of the disease.
People are concerned about Ebola, but there's no need to panic. When those with Ebola are correctly diagnosed, isolated, and cared for, the risk of passing the disease to others is low.
In the meantime, travelers should avoid going to areas where an outbreak of Ebola has been reported. Those who need to travel to these regions should take precautions to avoid becoming infected.
What Is Ebola?
Ebola, or Ebola hemorrhagic fever (Ebola HF), is a contagious and life-threatening disease that affects humans and other primates, like monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees. It causes the body's immune system to go into overdrive — which can lead to severe bleeding, organ failure, and death.
Ebola gets its name from the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). The disease was first reported in a village on the river in 1976. Since then, there have been a few outbreaks of the disease in western Africa, Uganda, and Sudan.
How It Spreads
Doctors aren't sure how the first person gets Ebola at the start of an outbreak, but they think that people may pick up the virus from contact with infected animals. Tropical animals in Africa believed to carry the virus include gorillas, monkeys, fruit bats, porcupines, and forest antelope.
Once someone has Ebola, he or she can pass the virus to others in different ways. People can get the virus by handling or touching drops of blood, urine (pee), or other body fluids of someone infected with the disease, or through contact with objects (such as needles) that have been contaminated with infected blood or fluids.
Because of this, Ebola can spread quickly within families and in health centers where caregivers or others don't wear proper protective gear.
Ebola doesn't spread through food or water like some viruses do. It also doesn't travel through the air like cold or flu viruses do.
How Contagious Is It?
Ebola is contagious, but not as contagious as the influenza (flu) virus. With Ebola, a person is only contagious after he or she starts to feel sick with symptoms from the virus. In areas where there is an Ebola outbreak, anyone who isn't feeling well should get immediate medical help and avoid contact with others.
After starting to feel ill, people with the disease are contagious for as long as the virus can be found in their blood and body fluids, even if they recover from the symptoms of the disease. The virus can remain in a person's body fluids for weeks after recovery.
Signs & Symptoms
The first signs of Ebola can appear from 2 to 21 days after someone has been exposed to the virus. Most people's symptoms begin 8-10 days after exposure.
Early symptoms of Ebola include:
As the disease progresses, other symptoms can appear, including:
- bleeding inside and outside of the body
- nausea and vomiting
- skin rash
- chest and stomach pain
- trouble with breathing or swallowing
In its later stages, Ebola can lead to severe bleeding, shock, coma, organ failure, and death, usually from low blood pressure.
An early and accurate diagnosis of Ebola is important to help prevent the spread of the disease. But because early symptoms are similar to those caused by other common diseases, it can be hard to diagnose Ebola quickly.
If a person has Ebola symptoms and has been in an area where Ebola is known to exist, he or she needs to be immediately isolated from other people and examined by trained health professionals wearing the proper protective gear.
Doctors can check for the presence of the Ebola virus by doing blood tests, liver function tests, and tests that identify the virus itself. Virus tests need to be sent to laboratories with special equipment and results may not be available for days or weeks.
Most people who get Ebola need intensive care in a hospital or other well-equipped medical center. Treatment involves keeping them well hydrated, maintaining their oxygen and blood pressure levels, replacing lost blood through transfusions, and treating symptoms and complications as they come up. Patients also need to be isolated from the public during treatment to help prevent the disease from spreading.
Some experimental treatments for Ebola have been effective when tested on animals, but are not officially approved for use in people.
There is no vaccine to prevent Ebola, although doctors are working on developing one. It can be hard to prevent the disease since doctors aren't entirely sure how it infects people at the start of an outbreak.
The best way to guard against Ebola infection is to avoid areas that have had outbreaks. Those traveling to Africa, particularly West Africa, should first check the CDC's Ebola website to see where Ebola is present and avoid those regions.
Those who have to go to an area where Ebola is present should avoid contact with infected people, wash their hands often, and not touch or eat wild animals (sometimes called "bush meat"). Those working with Ebola patients must wear head-to-toe protective clothing with no skin exposed.
Public health measures are focused on isolating and treating people who are infected with the Ebola virus. Any needles or other equipment used in their treatment should be disposed of properly. The remains of those who die from the disease must be kept isolated and buried promptly by trained professionals wearing full safety gear.
Ebola is one of the deadliest diseases known to mankind. But with early, aggressive treatment and new breakthroughs, doctors are having more success than ever treating it. And with the possibility of a vaccine on the horizon, Ebola eventually might go the way of smallpox and other diseases that are no longer a threat.
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: October 2014