The Ebola Outbreak: What You Need to Know

Ebola virus

Ebola has taken hold of the news recently, both because of the size of the outbreak and because of the terrifying nature of the disease. The outbreak is believed to have started in February in southeast Guinea, but has since spread to Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia. So far it has infected 1,100 people and has killed 660 of those infected. Among those now believed to be infected are two American physicians working with a relief organization to treat those infected in Western Africa.

What is Ebola? Ebola first surfaced in the 1970s, killing its victims within several weeks of being exposed to the disease. Early symptoms include rash, intense weakness, muscle pain, and severe headache. Eventually it causes a hemorrhagic fever, which means those infected experience high fevers accompanied by bleeding, often in the form of bloody vomiting or diarrhea. Ebola is extremely deadly and has killed as many as 90% of those who are infected in some outbreaks.

How is Ebola spread? The virus is believed to hide in fruit bats (not found in North America), who are not as seriously affected by the virus as humans. It is transmitted to humans when they come into contact with an infected animal, which is often the start of an outbreak. Once in humans, Ebola is very infectious and spreads through contact with body fluids.

Is there any way to treat or prevent Ebola? There is no known treatment for Ebola, although giving fluids, supporting breathing and blood pressure, and giving antibiotics to prevent against other infections can help those infected. The best prevention is to quarantine individuals who become infected with strict precautions to protect caregivers against contact with body fluids.

Should I be worried? The short answer is no. The outbreak is currently limited to West African nations, but further spread could occur. However, healthcare professionals in the US are well-equipped to contain any suspicious illness to stop early spread in its tracks. Those infected in low-resource African communities may not have easy access to hospitals and so family members who care for them often become infected. Even if they get to a hospital, that hospital may not have the equipment to effectively stop disease spread. Hospitals in the US are well-prepared to identify and effectively quarantine those infected.The CDC is also working with international partners to monitor the spread of the disease to ensure our safety at home. At this point, the spread of Ebola to the US is unlikely. Even if it does make it here, it is unlikely to become an outbreak that would threaten more than a few individuals.