WE’VE all heard of Ebola and know that it exists. But until news of the recent outbreak in Guinea, which has since spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia, it was a topic that was slightly out of reach to most of us.
The 1995 movie Outbreak, that focused on an outbreak of an Ebola-like virus in Zaire that later spread to the United States, presented one of those “what if” scenarios to get people excited and scared, but in the end it was just a movie. But everyone started to get nervous after hearing about the two American aid workers who were recently infected with the virus and flown into an isolation unit at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. There was talk of people being afraid to travel or fly on planes, simply because of one news item.
Ebola, like AIDS, instills an immense fear in people because there is no known cure for it at the present time. The virus is highly infectious, can kill up to 90% of those who catch it, and there is no vaccination against it. The World Health Organization (WHO) has mentioned that preliminary tests that were performed on the Ebola virus in Guinea in March, suggested that the outbreak was the Zaire strain (the most deadly of the five Ebola subtypes), although this has not been confirmed.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), symptoms of Ebola include: sudden fever, muscle pain, sore throat, headaches, and overall weakness. The symptoms tend to appear anywhere from two up to 21 days after infection. The symptoms then progress to vomiting, diarrhea, both internal and external bleeding, red eyes, chest pains, as well as impaired liver and kidney function. When one becomes infected, there is no specific treatment – rather, the individual is isolated and cared for by health workers, who hydrate them, maintain their oxygen status, blood pressure, and remain by them to treat any infections that could lead to further complications.
Apparently the two missionary workers who were recently infected and flown back to America were given ZMapp (an experimental drug) that has supposedly saved their lives. This is the first time that the drug has been tested on humans, but we will have to await further information to hear about their ongoing process. Plus, this untested drug is only available in very small qualities, so there is not an abundant supply to treat an outbreak like the current one. There are other experimental drugs as well, but they have been put on hold by the FDA for now. There are also potential Ebola vaccines being tested in small trials, but the process is slow and will take some time for any results to be gathered.
Now to answer the question: are we in danger?
Typically, outbreaks of the virus occur where the hospitals do not have a good system for controlling infection, and their resources (such as water) are limited. The WHO suspects that fruit bats in Africa are the natural host of the virus. Humans can only contract Ebola via bodily fluid exchange with infected animals or other humans. Typically those who come down with the virus were exposed to it by caring for or being around someone who had it – in this case, the missionary workers were caring for and experiencing a lot of contact with sick patients.
Some are worried about an infected person getting on a plane and spreading it that way, but the CDC points out that there has to be direct contact with the blood of bodily fluids of an infected person in order to get it. It is not an airborne virus, so you can’t get it simply by breathing the same air or having someone cough on you. Also, those who get the virus become quite ill and are unable to travel, so the likelihood of having lots of Ebola passengers on a plane is slim to none. CDC Chief Tom Frieden has declared “We are confident that there will not be a large Ebola outbreak in the US.” Even if several passengers with Ebola made it onto the plane, the chances of them infecting others with it are extremely low.
Ebola however, is currently ravaging areas of West Africa. As of Wednesday the World Health Organization announced 932 deaths have been reported as result of Ebola hemorrhagic fever. In Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, more than 1,700 cases have been reported.
To learn more about the current Ebola outbreak ravaging West Africa read more from the CDC.