Health, Mind & Body

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What you need to know about Ebola

Ebola has been ravaging residents of West Africa for quite some time, but the virus hit closer to home when the disease touched down in North America in September of 2014. The presence of the Ebola virus in the United States sparked immediate panic, but many concerns surrounding this potentially deadly virus are unfounded.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a rare and deadly disease caused by infection with a strain of an Ebola virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though Ebola primarily affects humans and other primates, it also can be passed by bats and other wild animals. Ebola viruses are contained in five different varieties: Ebola virus (formerly Zaire virus), Sudan virus, Taï Forest virus, Bundibugyo virus, and Reston virus.

Little is known of how the virus first passes to humans, but it could be through interaction or consumption of infected wild animals. Human-to-human transmission is to blame for the epidemic in Africa.

How is Ebola contracted?

In humans, Ebola spreads only via direct contact with the bodily fluids of a person who has developed symptoms of the virus. Fluids that may contain the Ebola virus include saliva, blood, mucus, vomit, feces, tears, breast milk, urine, and semen. The World Health Organization says only people who are quite sick are able to spread Ebola through saliva, and more studies are necessary to determine if the virus can be transmitted through sweat. Many people are infected when they come in contact with blood, vomit and feces from infected individuals. Vomiting and diarrhea are main symptoms of the disease and prolific transmitters of the virus.

It's important to note that deceased bodies remain infectious, and people handling human remains have contracted the virus from burial rituals and embalming.

Even if a person has recovered from Ebola, the virus may still be able to persist in semen or breast milk of survivors for up to seven weeks. Caution is always suggested to prevent additional transmission.

What are Ebola symptoms?

The incubation period for Ebola is between two and 21 days. Many infected persons exhibit no symptoms during this time. Typically, the first symptoms of the virus to appear are the sudden onset of fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat, according to the WHO. Vomiting, rash, diarrhea, and symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function may eventually appear. In some cases, internal and external bleeding may occur.

It can be very difficult to distinguish Ebola from other infectious diseases. Several tests are required to confirm Ebola is the culprit behind symptoms.

How is Ebola treated?

Many nations do not have the necessary medical care facilities and equipment to treat Ebola or contain the disease. There are currently no proven treatments available for Ebola, nor a vaccine. However, supportive care in the way of rehydration and treatment of specific symptoms can improve a patient's chance of survival. Experimental treatments with blood products and immune therapies also are being evaluated. At press time, two Texas nurses, who contracted Ebola while treating the late Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States, were recovering quite well.

Process for avoiding Ebola and containing the virus

Successful outbreak control relies heavily on case management, monitoring symptoms, good laboratory services, and safe burials. The CDC recommends practices of careful hygiene, including washing hands with soap and water. Avoidance of blood and body fluids is key.

Anyone who has had contact with someone suffering from Ebola is at risk. The virus can enter the body through broken skin or unprotected mucus membranes in the eyes, nose or mouth, and the CDC released updated guidelines for people who might have been exposed to the Ebola virus.

"The new guidelines increase the level of protection by outlining different levels of exposure and outlining different public health actions that can be taken for each of those levels of exposure," said CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden.

Direct contact with infected body fluids, for instance, would be classified as high risk. Someone would be considered low risk if he or she traveled on an airplane with a person showing symptoms of Ebola.

At press time, no travel restrictions to North America from West Africa had been implemented. However, travelers should expect screenings for symptoms at airports.

While Ebola has a high fatality rate elsewhere in the world, health advisors want to reiterate that pneumonia and the flu are responsible for more deaths in the United States than Ebola.