What You Need to Know About the Ebola Virus

With the media frenzy surrounding the devastating Ebola outbreak in West Africa and the confirmed cases in the United States, it’s no wonder there has been a sense of panic and fear surrounding this fatal disease. We wanted to learn the basics so we connected with two of our infectious disease physicians, Dr. Sandy Kemmerly and Dr. Katherine Baumgarten, to find out what they had to say about Ebola.

1. What is Ebola?

Dr. Baumgarten: Ebola is a severe, often fatal form of hemorrhagic fever. “Hemorrhagic” means it causes bleeding inside and outside of the body.

It originated in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1970s and was named after the Ebola River.

Bats seem to be the primary animal host to transmit this. While we’ve seen this outbreak occur in humans, this disease is prevalent in monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees.

There are five identified subspecies of the virus with four of the five most native to Africa.

Dr. Kemmerly: This is an acute illness that typically begins with sudden fever, intense fatigue and muscle pain, headache and sore throat. As it progresses, the symptoms change to vomiting, diarrhea, rash and impaired kidney and liver function. 

In some cases, there may be internal and external bleeding. Lab findings will show low white blood cell and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes. There are a number of diagnostic tests available to determine if someone is infected with Ebola.

2. How does one contract the virus? How contagious is it?

Dr. Baumgarten:  Ebola is not transmitted through the air, making it harder to spread than respiratory diseases like tuberculosis, SARS or influenza.

It spreads to humans when you have direct contact through broken skin with blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people or exposure to objects such as needles contaminated by an infected person. The reason it can spread so quickly is if a person is unknowingly ill and a family member or friend is in close contact with these infected secretions and while caring for you, they become exposed.

3. What kind of treatment is used?

Dr. Kemmerly: Treatment is limited as it is difficult to identify diagnosis in the early stages. A major priority is balancing the patient’s fluids and electrolytes while still maintaining good oxygen status and blood pressure. There is continuous monitoring for any type of complicated infections that may occur as a result to the disease.

There are new experimental treatments available which are currently being used on the two physicians.

4. With some international flights suspended to highly infected areas, what precautions should I take (if any) when traveling?

Dr. Baumgarten: Travel precautions are common sense measures that should be used for any infectious illness, not just Ebola. Any person who is sick should not travel and should stay home. Washing hands frequently or using hand sanitizer such as before eating and after using the restroom is still the single most important thing one can do to prevent transmission of any infection.

5. Does the treatment of Ebola patients in the U.S. endanger Americans?

Dr. Kemmerly: Hospitals in the United States are well equipped to deal with infections such as Ebola. Once a patient is suspected to have Ebola, hospitals can take proper infection prevention measures to prevent spread.

6. If you've travelled to an infected area, how much time must pass to be considered "safe" from the virus?

Dr. Baumgarten: Symptoms can appear anywhere from 2-21 days after exposure. After 21 days from the time of exposure, the person is considered “safe”.

If you think you may have come in contact with Ebola, please contact your local hospital infectious disease department. For more information on this disease, visit the CDC website.