The Ebola virus is one of four distinct families of viruses that can cause viral hemorrhagic fever in humans. The current epidemic in Africa is the largest outbreak in history having claimed the lives of over 960 individuals.
Ebola virus disease (EVD) was first identified in 1976 in Western Africa in Sudan and the Congo. Since that time, there have been smaller epidemics within the continent, but the combined total of all previous known cases and deaths is less than that of the current epidemic.
The hemorrhagic fevers are mainly diseases of animals (monkeys and bats), but contact with dead animals’ body fluids is thought to be the mode of transmission to humans. Transmission from human to human is thought be through contact with blood and body fluids as well. Ebola virus is not readily transmitted through the air from person to person. The average time between contracting the infection and the start of symptoms is eight to 10 days, but it can vary between two and 21 days.
Early symptoms of the disease include sudden fever, headache, chills, and muscle aches. Later a skin rash, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and other symptoms can occur. The virus attacks infection-fighting blood cells, the lining of the blood vessels, and the liver cells. Because of this, the body’s clotting mechanisms are impaired and bleeding can occur under the skin and internally in about forty to fifty percent of infected patients. The development of bleeding usually signifies more severe disease and a worse prognosis. With advanced disease, the infected persons develop shock and multi-organ failure leading to death.
Unfortunately, there is no vaccine currently available to prevent Ebola virus infections in humans. Further, once an individual is infected, there is no specific anti-Ebola virus treatment or antibiotic. This is true for most viral infections, including the common cold. Treatment of people infected with the virus consists of supporting their body’s immune system with fluids, oxygen, specialized clotting treatments, pain medications, antibiotics for concurrent infections and rest. However, fifty to ninety percent of people with the disease will die.
The most important health measures at this time have been to identify persons at risk due to travel and contact with infected individuals. Quarantine of infected patients and those at risk for infection can help to prevent spread of the disease.
As of this writing, the disease is limited to Western Africa – the nations of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. The likelihood of the virus being seen or causing an epidemic in the United States is extremely low. However, it is important to be informed about these types of infections, especially individuals who travel internationally.
The content in this column is for informational purposes only. Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment. Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.