Ebola was first identified in Africa in the mid-1970s. An outbreak that began in March 2014 was the most serious so far. By August 13 2014 it had killed more than 1,000 people across Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
In August 2014, a British nurse who was treating patients in Sierra Leone contracted the Ebola virus and was flown back to the UK for treatment in a London hospital. But experts studying the virus believe it is very unlikely the disease will spread within the UK.
Ebola is a rare but deadly virus that causes bleeding inside and outside the body.
As the virus spreads through the body, it damages the immune system and organs. Ultimately, it causes levels of blood-clotting cells to drop. This leads to severe, uncontrollable bleeding.
The disease, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever or Ebola virus, kills up to 90% of people who are infected.
Causes of Ebola
Ebola isn’t as contagious as more common viruses like colds, influenza, or measles. It spreads to people by contact with the skin or bodily fluids of an infected animal, like a monkey, chimp, or fruit bat. Then it moves from person to person the same way. Those who care for a sick person or bury someone who has died from the disease often get it.
Other ways to get Ebola include touching contaminated needles or surfaces.
You can’t get Ebola from air, water, or food. A person who has Ebola but has no symptoms can’t spread the disease, either.
How spread Ebola among the people
People can become infected with the Ebola virus if they come into contact with the blood, body fluids or organs of an infected person.
Most people are infected by giving care to other infected people, either by directly touching the victim’s body or by cleaning up body fluids (stools, urine or vomit) that carry infectious blood.
Other ways people can catch Ebola are:
- Touching the soiled clothing of an infected person, then touching their mouth
- Having sex with an infected person without using a condom (the virus is present in semen for up to seven weeks after the infected person has recovered)
- Handling unsterilised needles or medical equipment that were used in the care of the infected person
A person is infectious as long as their blood, urine, stools or secretions contain the virus.
Ebola virus disease is generally not spread through routine social contact (such as shaking hands) with patients who do not have symptoms.
The virus is not, for example, as infectious as diseases like the flu, as airborne transmission is much less likely. You’d need to have close contact with the source of infection to be at risk.
Who is at risk?
Anyone who cares for an infected person or handles their blood or fluid samples is at risk of becoming infected. Hospital workers, laboratory workers and family members are at greatest risk.
Strict infection control procedures and wearing protective clothing minimises this risk.
Symptoms of Ebola Virus
Early on, Ebola can feel like the flu or other illnesses. Symptoms show up 2 to 21 days after infection and usually include:
- High fever
- Joint and muscle aches
- Sore throat
- Stomach pain
- Lack of appetite
Diarrhoea, vomiting, a rash, stomach pain and impaired kidney and liver function follow.
The patient then bleeds internally, and may also bleed from the ears, eyes, nose or mouth.
Ebola virus disease is fatal in 50-90% of cases. The sooner a person is given care, the better the chances that they will survive.
Advice for the Healthcare and Aid workers
Any area affected by an outbreak should be immediately quarantined and patients treated in isolation.
Healthcare workers need to avoid contact with the bodily fluids of their infected patients by taking the following precautions:
- Wear face masks or goggles, gowns and gloves
- Take extra care when handling blood, secretions and catheters and when connecting patients to a drip
- Disinfect non-disposable medical equipment before re-use
- Sterilise and dispose of used needles and disposable equipment carefully
- Properly dispose of any secretions or body waste from the patient
- Carefully and frequently wash hands with soap and water (alcohol hand rub if soap isn’t available)
- Wash disposable gloves with soap and water after use, dispose of them carefully, then wash hands
Diagnosis of Ebola Virus
It’s difficult to know if a patient is infected with Ebola virus in the early stages as symptoms such as fever, headache and muscle pain are similar to those of many other diseases.
But specialist infection clinicians will make expert judgements on what the most likely diagnosis is based on the patient’s history.
If Ebola is considered a possibility on this basis, then a person would be tested for the disease.
Samples of blood or body fluid can be sent to a laboratory to be tested for the presence of Ebola virus, and a diagnosis can be made rapidly.
A suspect case would be isolated in a side room so as to minimise contacts with other people while they are being tested. It is only if this test is positive that the case is considered to be ‘confirmed’.
There’s no vaccine to prevent Ebola. The best way to avoid catching the disease is by not traveling to areas where the virus is found.
Health care workers can prevent infection by wearing masks, gloves, and goggles whenever they come into contact with people who may have Ebola.