Ebola Virus and Disease

Written by Rachel Nall, RN, BSN | Published on October 20, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on October 20, 2014

Ebola Virus and Disease

What Is Ebola?

The Ebola virus is a serious and deadly disease transmitted by animals and humans. Scientists initially detected the Ebola virus disease (EVD) in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Researchers named the disease after the Ebola River that flows in the Congo.

Although the Ebola virus has been present for more than 35 years, an outbreak occurred in March 2014 that began in West Africa. This outbreak has proven more deadly, severe, and widespread than previous outbreaks.

What Causes Ebola?

The Ebola virus belongs to the viral family Filoviridae. Scientists also call it Filovirus. These virus types cause hemorrhagic fever or profuse bleeding inside and outside the body accompanied by a very high fever. Ebola can be further divided into subtypes that are named for the location they were identified. These include:

  • Bundibugyo
  • Reston
  • Sudan
  • Taï Forest (previously known as Ivory Coast)
  • Zaire

The Ebola virus likely originated in African fruit bats. The virus is known as a “zoonotic” virus because it’s transmitted to humans from animals. Humans can also transfer the virus to each other. Other animals known to transmit the virus include:

  • chimpanzees
  • forest antelopes
  • gorillas
  • monkeys
  • porcupines

Since people may handle these infected animals, the virus can be transmitted via the animal’s blood and body fluids. Once people become infected with Ebola, they can transmit it to others if people come in contact with their:

  • breast milk
  • feces
  • saliva
  • semen (According to the CDC, Ebola can live in the semen for as long as three months.)
  • sweat
  • urine
  • vomit

These bodily fluids can all carry Ebola virus. People can get Ebola when they come in contact with these fluids via the eyes, nose, mouth, or broken skin. Healthcare workers are especially at risk for experiencing Ebola because they often deal with blood and bodily fluids.

Ebola can also be spread through sticks from infected objects, such as needles, and interactions with infected animals. To date, Ebola is only known to be transmitted from infected mammals and humans. Insects like mosquitoes are not linked with carrying Ebola.

What Are the Symptoms of Ebola?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola symptoms can take as long as three weeks to appear. Disease symptoms include:

  • diarrhea
  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • stomach pain
  • unexplained bleeding or bruising
  • vomiting

People should seek immediate medical care if they have a fever greater than 101.5 F or any other symptoms associated with the Ebola virus.

How Is Ebola Diagnosed?

The early symptoms of Ebola can closely mimic other diseases like the flu, malaria and typhoid fever. People who have Ebola should be immediately isolated to protect against further transmissions.

Blood tests can identify antibodies or the Ebola virus when people show the first symptoms of what could be Ebola. Blood tests may also reveal low white blood cell counts, low platelet counts, and high liver enzymes.

If a person recovers from Ebola, they also will develop certain antibodies to the disease in their blood that confirm the disease was Ebola. In addition to blood tests, a doctor will also consider the person’s activities and whether they have come in contact with anyone who could have Ebola.

How Is Ebola Treated?

The Ebola virus does not have a cure or vaccine at this time. Instead, measures are taken to keep the person as comfortable as possible. Supportive care measures include:

  • giving medications to maintain blood pressure
  • managing electrolyte balances
  • providing extra oxygen, if needed
  • providing intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration
  • treating co-existing infections and preventing other infections from occurring

People’s immune systems can respond differently to Ebola. While some may recover from the virus without complication, others can have residual effects like joint problems.

Preventing Ebola

Individuals can take several precautions to protect against Ebola. These steps include:

  • avoiding contact with blood and body fluids
  • educating themselves on recognizing the disease and preventing it
  • practicing careful hand hygiene, including washing hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
  • refraining from engaging in burial rituals that involve handling the body of a person who died from Ebola
  • refraining from handling items a person with Ebola has handled, including clothing, bedding, needles, or medical equipment

Healthcare workers and lab technicians also must practice very careful precautions. This includes isolating people with Ebola and wearing protective gowns, gloves, masks, and eye shields when coming in contact with the infected person or their belongings. Careful protocol and disposal of these protective materials is also vital for infection prevention.

Cleaning crews should use a bleach solution to clean floors and surfaces that may have come in contact with the Ebola virus.

What Is the Survival Outlook for Ebola?

According to the World Health Organization, the average Ebola case fatality rate is 50 percent. However, some virus strains are deadlier than others. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the Zaire and Sudan viral strains have a 90 percent fatality rate. 

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