What Is Ebola?

Ebola is a serious and deadly virus transmitted by animals and humans. It was initially detected in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Researchers named the disease after the Ebola River. Until recently, Ebola appeared in Africa only.

Although the Ebola virus has been present for more than 35 years, the largest outbreak began in West Africa in March 2014. This outbreak has proven more deadly, severe, and widespread than previous outbreaks. While cases have significantly declined since the peak of the outbreak, there’s still a chance of further outbreaks. Learning the facts about the virus can help prevent the spread of this deadly infection.

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. It’s accompanied by a very high fever. Ebola can be further divided into subtypes that are named for the location where 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. The following animals can transmit the virus:

  • 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.

Unlike other types of viruses, Ebola can’t be transmitted through the air or by touch alone. You must have direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has it. The virus may be transmitted through:

  • blood
  • diarrhea
  • breast milk
  • feces
  • saliva
  • semen
  • sweat
  • urine
  • vomit

These bodily fluids can all carry the Ebola virus. Transmission can occur via the eyes, nose, mouth, broken skin, or sexual contact. Healthcare workers are especially at risk for contracting Ebola because they often deal with blood and bodily fluids.

Other risk factors include:

  • exposure to infected objects, such as needles
  • interactions with infected animals
  • attending burial ceremonies of someone who has died from Ebola
  • traveling to areas where a recent outbreak has occurred

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Ebola symptoms typically appear within 8 to 10 days after exposure; however, symptoms can appear as early as two days after exposure or take as long as three weeks to appear.

Extreme fatigue is often the first and most prominent symptom. Other symptoms include:

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

If you’ve come in contact with or provided care to someone diagnosed with Ebola or handled infected animals and have any symptoms you should seek immediate medical attention.

The early symptoms of Ebola can closely mimic other diseases like the flu, malaria, and typhoid fever.

Blood tests can identify antibodies of the Ebola virus. These may also reveal:

  • either unusually low or high white blood cell counts
  • low platelet counts
  • elevated liver enzymes
  • abnormal coagulation factor levels

In addition to blood tests, a doctor will also consider whether others in the patient’s community could be at risk.

Since Ebola may occur within three weeks of exposure, anyone with possible exposure might undergo an incubation period of the same timeframe. If no symptoms appear within 21 days, Ebola is ruled out.

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 may include:

  • giving medications to maintain blood pressure
  • managing electrolyte balances
  • providing extra oxygen, if needed
  • providing intravenous and/or oral fluids to prevent dehydration
  • treating coexisting infections
  • preventing other infections from occurring
  • administering blood products if indicated

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

  • avoiding contact with blood and body fluids
  • 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
  • wearing protective clothing around wildlife
  • refraining from handling items a person with Ebola has handled (this includes clothing, bedding, needles, or medical equipment)

Healthcare workers and lab technicians also must practice 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.

Further research is being done to help prevent future outbreaks. As of April 2015, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that two possible vaccines are being tested for human safety.

People’s immune systems can respond differently to Ebola. While some may recover from the virus without complication, others can have residual effects. These lingering effects may include:

  • joint problems
  • hair loss
  • extreme weakness and fatigue
  • delirium
  • inflammation of the liver and eyes
  • sensory changes
  • jaundice

According to the Mayo Clinic, such complications can last for a few weeks to several months. Other complications of the virus can be deadly, including:

  • failure of multiple organs
  • coma
  • shock
  • severe bleeding

According to the WHO, the average fatality rate for a person infected with Ebola is 50 percent. Some virus strains are deadlier than others. The earlier the infection is diagnosed, the better the outlook for infected patients.

The CDC estimates that Ebola survivors have antibodies to the virus for about 10 years. This means that once you have the virus, you aren’t necessarily immune to getting an infection. Until a vaccine is available, it’s important to be on your guard to avoid the spread of Ebola.