People who have read Robin Cook’s 1987 novel Outbreak may find media reports about the Ebola virus rampaging through different parts of the world eerily familiar. Today, this is a very real, serious, public health problem. As new cases emerge globally, people are confused and ill-informed about this disease. Myths, rumors and media hysteria add to the fear.
It is important to keep abreast with all the facts about Ebola for our own safety and protection.
Key Ebola virus Facts
The word Ebola refers to the Ebola River in Yambuku in the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa. The first outbreak of the disease was documented here in 1976 and has continued to exist in a limited way in the region. However, this outbreak is the largest, most complex one that has ever occurred.
How it Spreads
Earlier known as Zaire Ebolavirus or EBOV, Ebola hemorrhagic fever is severe, acute and fatal if not treated correctly. It is transmitted to humans from wild animals, especially bats, in whom it occurs naturally. It spreads rapidly through human populations by direct contact with infected people through:
• Body secretions including urine, sweat, saliva, feces, vomit, mucus, semen and breast-milk
• Contaminated surfaces, materials, bedding or clothing
• Direct contact with dead victims
• Contact within seven weeks with those who have recovered from the illness
• Objects like needles, dressing/cotton, utensils
• Infected fruit-bats and monkeys
It is NOT spread through:
• Mosquitoes or other insects
• Coughing/Sneezing/Breathing at reasonable distances
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms may occur anywhere between two days to two weeks of exposure to Ebola virus. Generally, symptoms begin 8-10 days after contact. They are generalized and include:
• High fever
• Body pain
• Severe stomach cramps
• Unexplained bleeding/bruising all over the body
Since the symptoms are not very specific, it may be difficult to diagnose an Ebola virus attack very early in its onset. They are similar to the symptoms of malaria or typhoid. However a key factor in diagnosing Ebola is whether the person has had recent exposure to the virus through contact or travel to affected places.
Lab tests for Ebola virus are available. The ELISA and PCR tests as well as virus isolation test are reliable within a few days after the symptoms are noticed. When symptoms are more advanced, IgM and IgG antibody tests are done. Post-mortem tests include Immunochemistry, PCR and virus isolation tests.
• Though research is ongoing, no vaccines or medicines are currently available for Ebola virus.
• Only supportive treatment can be given.
• Support of the patient through oral rehydration, intravenous blood transmission, treatment of symptoms, etc. can improve chances of survival.
• The virus is self-limiting and lasts about two weeks.
• Death occurs due to sepsis and organ failure.
• In countries with better healthcare facilities, identifying, monitoring and prevention of transmission are easier than in less developed countries.
The spread of Ebola virus should be approached from a comprehensive, 360-degree perspective.
• Managing the patient
• Surveillance of neighborhood
• Tracing the contact
• Reliable laboratory services
• Safe and hygienic burial/cremation
• Social awareness and mobilization
• Risk awareness in health-care/lab/veterinary staff
• Community’s co-operation
Since the Ebola virus spreads through direct contact, some general, universal precautions should be followed.
• Avoid travel to known places where Ebola virus occurs.
• All contact with blood and body fluids of infected people should be avoided.
• Those in contact with infected people must use masks, gloves, gowns and protective eye-wear.
• After contact, wash hands thoroughly with soap and warm water or use a hand-sanitizer.
• Avoid contact with people handling wild animals and wild-animal-meats since they can be potential carriers.
• Destroy contaminated linen and items used by infected people safely and completely.
• Be aware of symptoms.
• Approach a health-care professional immediately if you suspect a possible infection.
The current outbreak is a wake-up call for all countries whose health-care systems are lax and ill-prepared. Information and awareness are key factors. A responsible and professional approach to control and prevention is currently the only way to manage the spread of deadly Ebola virus.