What is the Ebola Virus?

With the death rate from Ebola passing 4,000, it is timely to ask what the disease actually is. Here?s a brief summary:

History of the Ebola Virus

Ebola virus is a member of a particularly nasty family of diseases known as viral hemorrhagic fevers, viruses which cause dangerous fevers and uncontrollable bleeding. Ebola was first classified in 1976 after outbreaks in what was then Zaire (now DR Congo) and Sudan along the Ebola River, in Africa.

Because of the deadly nature of Ebola, and the ongoing conflicts in and around the Congo, where it originates, research into the virus is limited. Most outbreaks of Ebola have been linked to the consumption of ?bush meat?, gorillas and chimpanzees caught by local hunters. If the raw carcass is handled, or the meat is improperly cooked and eaten, the virus can then spread to people.

However, since gorillas and chimps have been observed suffering from Ebola, it is believed that bats, and not apes, are the reservoir for the virus. That is, they host the virus in their bodies without succumbing to its effects.  Ebola then passes to apes through partially digested fruit dropped by bats.

Animated Map of Ebola Outbreak 2014-15

Source: World Health Organisation (WHO)

Symptoms of the Ebola Virus

Ebola can take anywhere from as little as two days to as much as three weeks for symptoms to develop after infection. Symptoms usually begin with fever, headaches and muscle pain, before progressing to nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and often bleeding both internally and from mucous membranes (the nose, gums, and intestines). Ebola is extremely deadly, with death occurring in anywhere from 50% to 90% of infections. Those lucky enough to survive may face a long and difficult recovery, with the possibility of ongoing inflammation and pain, hair loss, skin peeling and possibly even blindness.

Once symptoms appear, Ebola virus is highly contagious, spreading easily through any contact with an infected person?s bodily fluids. Obviously, due to vomiting, diarrhoea and bleeding caused by the disease this is a significant risk, particularly in the underfunded and underequipped hospitals in many of the countries where Ebola is found. Further, since it can take up to three weeks for symptoms to appear, infection risks are increased by the possibility of an infected individual travelling, bringing the disease to a new area.

Treatment of the Ebola Virus

Unfortunately, there is no known cure or vaccine for Ebola, with treatment limited to easing suffering and managing symptoms. Early treatment may increase survival chances, but can be delayed because the initial symptoms resemble the flu.  Modern, well-equipped hospitals are typically quite effective at stopping the spread of infection, but such facilities are rare in the regions in Africa where the virus originates. While the current outbreak in West Africa is deeply concerning, quarantine controls have been effective at preventing the disease spreading outside the region. The easiest way to stay safe is to avoid travel to infected regions.

For more information on Ebola, visit the World Health Organisation website.

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