When many of us first heard the word Ebola we felt a sense of safety, or immunity for ourselves. Ebola has traditionally been a disease of Central and Western Africa not the United States. And although the current 2014 Ebola outbreak (now considered the first Ebola epidemic) is the worst that the world has seen, our borders are protected from this virulent virus. We are untouchable. Right?
The problem with illness is that it knows no bounds. And while modern-day transportation has revolutionized our lives, it has also created an easy opportunity for once isolated diseases to spread…as evidenced by the travel related case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States this past week. Should we all head to David Vetter type bubbles and isolation chambers? Thankfully not, but we should be aware of what Ebola is, how it is spread, and what measures we can take to protect ourselves from this deadly virus. Here are the 7 things that you need to know about Ebola. Make sure to click on the hyperlinks for more useful resources.
1. What is Ebola?
Ebola is a deadly virus that is virulent in nature. This means that a small exposure can cause intense illness that results in bleeding in many different organ systems in the body. More than 50% of people diagnosed with Ebola die based on current data.
2. What are the Signs and Symptoms to Look For?
Unfortunately, Ebola has common symptoms seen with many other illnesses. These signs and symptoms include a fever greater than 101.5 degrees, severe headache, vomiting, abdominal pain, weakness, diarrhea, and unexplained bleeding or bruising. These symptoms can show up as early as 2 days after exposure to the virus or as late as 21 days after exposure.
3. How is it Transmitted (or passed from person to person)?
When a person is infected with Ebola they can spread the infection through direct contact with another human either through broken skin or mucous membranes. This includes blood and body fluids such as saliva, urine, feces, vomit, and semen. The person with Ebola must have active symptoms present in order to spread the virus. Needles and syringes that have been contaminated with the virus can also spread the disease as can direct contact with infected animals. Ebola is not spread through the air, water, or food. So unlike the flu, just being around someone with the illness (aka breathing in their viral particles) does not spread Ebola.
4. What is My Risk of Being Exposed?
In general, the risk of exposure to Ebola is very low in the United States. Those who are at greatest risk are health care workers who come in contact with blood and body fluids on a regular basis. Those who have been in direct contact with body fluids from anyone with active Ebola symptoms who has recently travelled from Africa may also be at risk. Additionally, anyone who has recently travelled to Western Africa in a health care related capacity may be at increased risk.
5. Can Ebola be Prevented?
While a vaccine does not currently exist to prevent the spread of Ebola, preventative measures can be taken to limit disease exposure and spread. While these measures (such as avoiding body fluids and wearing protective gear when treating Ebola patients) are most important for those traveling to an area currently affected by the Ebola outbreak and for health care workers, simply practicing good hygiene is a good way to avoid any exposure in the United States as well. Avoiding contact with blood and body fluids and being careful to wash your hands regularly is incredibly important. If you have recently travelled to Western Africa it is important that you monitor yourself for any symptoms up to 21 days after leaving. At the first sign of illness you should immediately present to the hospital and inform the staff of your travel history.
6. How is it Diagnosed?
Ebola can be diagnosed through advanced laboratory testing that identifies the virus, the DNA of the virus, or the viral proteins. Unfortunately, results from these tests may not come back immediately. Because the symptoms of Ebola are similar to those of other illnesses, the suspicion for Ebola in anyone who has travelled to Africa should be high, and health care professionals should take precautionary steps to isolate these patients and treat them as possible Ebola cases.
7. What is the Treatment for Ebola?
Although an experimental drug has recently been used on the two Ebola infected American health care workers who were transported back to the United States for treatment, this drug has not been FDA approved for mainstream treatment. Current anti-viral medications have not been found to be effective in Ebola treatment, and although vaccines are being developed, none have yet been approved for use in humans. So, for the time being, symptomatic treatment (treating symptoms as they occur) is the best and only option for Ebola infected patients. This includes providing IV fluids to prevent dehydration and body salts to normalize electrolyte disturbances as well as oxygen and blood pressure regulation. Although Ebola has a very high death rate, these simple treatments can be life saving. Overall, how a patient responds to treatment depends on their immune system’s response to the virus. Those whose immune systems are already compromised due to illnesses such as AIDS are more likely to succumb to this deadly illness.
For continued up to date information on the Ebola epidemic check out the CDC and World Health Organization websites. Although our risk of an Ebola epidemic in the United States is fairly low, we shouldn’t dismiss the current health crisis in Western Africa. Many organizations are offering opportunities to get involved without even having to leave our homes. Check out this link for the Ebola Children’s Relief Fund for just one possible way to help save lives in Western Africa.
From The Mom in Me, MD