Ebola is a virus generally found on the African continent that normally lives in animals unaffected by the infection. When humans come into contact with these animals, called reservoirs, they can be infected and spread the virus to other humans. This leads to an outbreak like the one currently seen in West Africa. The current outbreak is the largest recorded so far.
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What are the symptoms, and how is it diagnosed?
Early symptoms include rash, intense weakness, muscle pain and severe headache. Eventually infection causes a hemorrhagic fever, which means those infected experience high fevers accompanied by bleeding, often in the form of bloody vomiting or diarrhea. Diagnosis is made with a blood test that measures the amount of virus circulating in a person’s blood. The amount of virus is more indicative of serious disease than the symptoms a person has.
How is it spread?
Ebola is spread through all bodily fluids, but blood is the most commonly seen since it can have high amounts of the virus and is often lost uncontrollably when those infected are most sick. It cannot be spread through the air like a cold, so just being in a closed space with someone who’s sick is not dangerous. Additionally, those infected normally have to be symptomatic to be infectious.
Can it be treated or prevented?
Prevention is key. One study of a very small outbreak indicated that usual sanitary precautions like regular hand washing and glove use when dealing with those who are sick can dramatically decrease the risk of transmitting the disease. There is currently no treatment or vaccine for Ebola, but those infected do better when they’re supported and cared for in a medical facility. While treatments are under development, current leads are experimental and nowhere near ready for mass production or distribution. They also have no studies supporting their effectiveness.
Should I be concerned?
The short answer is no. Infection and death from the disease have been significant in West Africa because the health systems are not equipped to contain spread of the virus, and cultural factors often keep people from getting treatment and may help spread the disease. This is not the case in the US. While a few cases that have made it here, they have all been imported. The only exception is a nurse in Dallas who cared for a patient infected overseas. However, given the need for direct, repeated contact with a sick individual's bodily fluids, it is unlikely an outbreak that could threaten more than a few individuals will occur in the US.