The Ebola outbreak has raised serious public health concerns across the globe in recent weeks. CNN reports that there have been at least 9,936 cases in Africa and the United States between March and October 2014.
The outbreak is most widespread in Liberia (4,665 cases and 2,705 deaths), Sierra Leone (3,706 cases and 1,259 deaths) and Guinea (1,540 cases and 904 deaths). However, the ease of modern travel and the severity of the disease has spread the fear to the United States, where there have been three confirmed cases and one death as of October 26.
What Is Ebola?
Ebola hemorrhagic fever is an extremely serious illness, with a fatality rate of up to 90 percent. Ebola is extremely infectious but not extremely contagious; in other words, it takes a very small amount of the virus to infect someone, but it does not spread easily. Unlike the measles or the flu, Ebola particles cannot travel through the air and infect another person. Instead, it is spread from person to person by contact with an infected person’s body fluids or contaminated objects; this includes any contact with an infected person’s blood, sweat, feces, vomit, semen, or spit. In addition, Ebola can only be spread when the infected person is showing symptoms. Even if the person has Ebola and is not showing symptoms (or was previously showing symptoms and has recovered), the disease cannot spread.
There is a period of time between the infection and the onset of symptoms, which can range from two to 21 days (but more often falls between eight and ten days). According to the World Health Organization, symptoms of Ebola hemorrhagic fever include:
- Sudden onset of fever
- Intense weakness
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
- Impaired kidney and liver function
- Possible internal or external bleeding
The first Ebola outbreaks in humans occurred in 1976 in what are now the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan. The virus was named for the river in Africa where it was first recognized nearly 40 years ago. The exact origin point of the Ebola virus is unclear, but researchers believe the fruit bat is the most likely natural host.
There is no specific vaccine or treatment for Ebola, although there are experimental treatments being researched. Infected patients are typically given supportive care, which includes fluids, electrolytes, and food.
What Should You Do To Protect Yourself?
The risk of an outbreak in the U.S. is very low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Ebola virus has taken hold in West Africa because of a lack of centralized healthcare options, quarantine procedures, and qualified healthcare workers with appropriate protective equipment.
Although it is certainly possible for an infected patient from West Africa to travel to the U.S., which has happened at least once during the course of this outbreak, it is still rather difficult to contract. Unless the person was bleeding, vomiting, or sweating profusely, there is very little chance of contracting the virus.
If you are traveling to West Africa in the wake of this outbreak, it is important to follow certain safety procedures. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the best steps to take are:
- Washing hands frequently or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Avoiding contact with blood and bodily fluids of any person, particularly someone who is sick
- Not handling items that may have come in contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids
- Not touching the body of someone who has died from Ebola
- Not touching bats or nonhuman primates or their blood and fluids and not touching or eating raw meat prepared from these animals
- Avoiding facilities in West Africa where Ebola patients are being treated
- Seeking medical care immediately if you develop a fever, headache, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, or unexplained bruising or bleeding