Ebola Virus and Disease

Written by Rose Kivi | Published on June 22, 2012
Medically Reviewed by Brenda B. Spriggs, MD, MPH, FACP

What Is the Ebola Virus?

Ebola disease—also called Ebola hemorrhagic fever or Ebola fever—is a rare and often fatal illness that humans and nonhuman primates (such as monkeys and gorillas) can contract. There have been several outbreaks of Ebola fever in Africa. There has never been a reported case of Ebola fever in people in the United States.

The Ebola virus causes Ebola fever. The virus is found in Africa and the Philippines—but, the virus from the Philippines does not cause illness in humans. The virus was named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where it was first discovered.

The Ebola virus was discovered in 1976 and has appeared in sporadic outbreaks since then. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 2,265 reported cases of Ebola fever in humans around the world since 1976. Of these, 1,531 resulted in death (CDC, 2012).

Types of Ebola Virus

There are five subtypes of Ebola virus:

  • Ebola-Zaire
  • Ebola-Sudan
  • Ebola-Ivory Coast
  • Ebola-Bundibugyo
  • Ebola-Reston

All of these subtypes are found in Africa, except for Ebola-Reston, which is found in the Philippines. The Ebola-Reston virus is also the only subtype that will not cause illness in humans—it only affects animals.

How Do You Contract the Ebola Virus?

You can get the Ebola virus through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected animal or human. These include blood, saliva, semen, vomit, urine, or feces.

According to the World Health Organization, you can also get the virus by handling a sick or dead wild animal that has been infected with it (WHO, 2007).

There is some evidence that the Ebola virus can be spread through the air from nonhuman primate to nonhuman primate, such as monkey-to-monkey, in research facilities. No definitive studies have proven this, however.

What Are the Symptoms of Ebola Fever?

If you are exposed to the any of the African forms of the Ebola virus, you will begin to display symptoms anywhere from two to 21 days following that exposure. The onset of the illness is rapid. The initial symptoms resemble those of a common flu infection and include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • joint and muscle soreness
  • weakness

As Ebola fever progresses, the symptoms become more severe. Late-stage symptoms of Ebola virus may include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • redness in the eyes
  • swelling of the genitals
  • internal and external bleeding (some patients may have blood coming from their eyes, nose, mouth, ears, or rectum)
  • a bleeding rash over the entire body

How Is Ebola Fever Diagnosed?

Ebola fever is diagnosed using blood tests to detect the Ebola virus in your blood. Your doctor may test you for the Ebola virus if you have symptoms of Ebola fever and have recently been in an area where the virus is found.

How Is Ebola Fever Treated?

There is no cure for Ebola fever. The only available treatments are those meant to help to ease your symptoms. These may include:

  • oxygen therapy
  • intravenous fluids
  • blood transfusions
  • medications to treat shock
  • pain medications

When to Call a Doctor

Call your doctor right away if you develop symptoms of Ebola fever and have recently traveled to Africa or been exposed to the Ebola virus. The earlier you receive treatment, the better your chances will be for survival.

Outlook: The Chances of Survival with Ebola Fever

The National Institutes of Health estimate that Ebola fever is fatal in as many as 90 percent of all infected patients (NIH, 2011). The virus infects the liver, destroys the lining of blood vessels, and causes blood clotting problems and loss of blood. Death is usually due to hypovolemic shock because of loss of blood. It is not known why some people survive Ebola fever while others do not.

How Can Ebola Fever Be Prevented?

You can lower your risk of becoming infected with the Ebola virus by avoiding locations where it is found, especially during times when there is an outbreak of Ebola fever.

If you travel to Africa, avoid handling live or dead wild animals. Some species of animals besides primates may carry the Ebola virus. The African subtypes of the virus have also been found in forest antelope and fruit bats. Also, always be sure to wear special protective clothing (gown, gloves, full face mask and eye goggles) if you are around a person with Ebola fever.

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