The largest Ebola outbreak in all of history is happening in West Africa, right now. The uncontrolled outbreak has primarily affected the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Previously, the disease had not affected large cities; however, the pandemic has made its way to all three of the West African capitals. Most recently, Ebola has spread to Nigeria, where there are now reported cases of infection.
What is Ebola?
Ebola is the virus that causes Ebola hemorrhagic fever (Ebola HF). Ebola HF belongs to a group of diseases called “viral hemorrhagic fevers” (VHF). It is a severe and often deadly disease that infects humans and non-human primates (which include chimpanzees, gorillas, and moneys). Ebola HF is caused by the virus, Ebolavirus, which has five subspecies. Only four identified subspecies infect humans: Ebola virus (Zaire ebolavirus); Sudan virus (Sudan ebolavirus); Taï Forest virus (Taï Forest ebolavirus, formerly known as Côte d’Ivoire ebolavirus); and Bundibugyo virus (Bundibugyo ebolavirus). The fifth subspecies, Reston virus (Reston ebolavirus), has only caused disease in non-human primates.
The current outbreak is of the Zaire strain. This strain of Ebola is known to be the deadliest of the five.
How does Ebola spread?
Experts believe that the virus is zoonotic, or animal-borne. Although the natural reservoir of the virus is unknown, they believe that bats are most likely the reservoir. Four of the five subspecies of Ebola are identified in an animal host native to Africa.
Once the disease is present in humans, it is spread human-to-human through close contact. Human-to-human transmission is not airborne. The virus cannot pass through air, water, or food, but occurs through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. These bodily fluids include blood, semen, sweat, and vomit.
There is no vaccine or cure for Ebola. The treatment given to people who have been infected with Ebola is supportive care to make them as comfortable as possible while the disease runs its course.
How can I keep from getting Ebola?
Although there is currently no vaccine for Ebola, the following steps are recommended to prevent from getting the virus:
- Staying away from people who have Ebola; avoiding contact with their bodily fluids, secretions, or objects that have been contaminated by them
- Wash your hands frequently or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer
- Do not touch and/or eat sick or dead wildlife (particularly bats and “bushmeat” from chimpanzees, gorillas, and monkeys)
For family members, health workers, and others coming into contact with Ebola patients:
- People infected with Ebola need to be isolated
- Universal barrier precautions need to be used when coming into contact with someone who is suspected to have
- Make sure all equipment is properly disposed of
- Ebola patients should not have sexual intercourse for 7 weeks
- Be sure to bury those who have died from Ebola while wearing protection, and do not let mourners touch the body of the deceased patient
It is important to note that these precautions are highly recommended for those who are in or traveling to areas that are of high-risk of Ebola. The current outbreak is in West Africa and does not pose a threat to many countries far outside the borders of the area, such as the United States.
If you are planning on traveling to West Africa, be sure to stay up-to-date with health alerts on what is happening in the area. Scheduling a travel health consultation with a travel health specialist is also a good way to prepare yourself by receiving vaccinations for any other disease that may pose a risk in the area.