Understanding the Ebola outbreak

Where did Ebola come from?

Ebola first appeared in 1976 in Africa near the Ebola River, where the disease gets its name.  Scientists believe that the virus originates from fruit bats, and is spread to humans and other animals through contact with food, or surfaces that these infected bat fluids have also been in contact with.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms usually appear eight to 10 days after a person has been exposed to the virus. Early symptoms are much like the flu – including headaches, fever, and joint and muscle aches.  Loss of appetite, weakness, and then diarrhea and vomiting usually follow these initial symptoms.   In severe cases – which occur in about half of infected people – Ebola becomes more severe and causes bleeding inside the body. Those infected can vomit blood, pass it in urine, or bleed from their eyes, nose or mouths.

What do I need to know about the current Ebola outbreak?

Almost 2,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone have been infected with Ebola since March, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).  This makes the current outbreak the biggest on record.  Sadly, given the deadly nature of the virus more than 1,000 of those infected have died.

Since Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids, most new cases of the virus are occurring among caretakers in the current outbreak. If an infected person’s blood or other bodily fluid gets in another’s eyes, nose or mouth, the infection can be spread.

The risk that anyone will contract Ebola in the United States is extremely low, however, doctors should be taking extra precautions to make sure it remains that way.  Doctors are asking for a travel history from anyone who comes into their office or an emergency room with a fever.  Similarly, anyone who has been to West Africa is being screened and tested if they could have been exposed. Currently, no Ebola cases have turned up in the U.S.

How do we prevent it?

Prevention is extremely important in the case of Ebola since there is no vaccine or cure for this viral disease.  The only way to treat people is to nurse them through the illness and make sure they stay hydrated and free of any other infection which can be detrimental in their weakened state.

Those most at risk are people taking care of those already infected.  For this reason, health care professionals are particularly at risk.  Health professionals should wear protective clothing like masks, gloves, gowns, and goggles whenever caring for suspected or confirmed Ebola patients.  Sterilizing any equipment and disinfecting medical utensils are also good preventative tools.

Caretakers should avoid direct contact with blood or fluids of infected patients, even after the person is deceased.  To best avoid contracting the disease, avoid travel to places where the virus is found.  If travel is necessary, make sure you see the doctor when you return – especially if a fever presents itself.