The World Health Organization recently announced that it was ethical to offer unproven medicines as potential treatment for Ebola, given the particular circumstances of the current outbreak. This followed the announcement Aug. 8 that it ranks as an international health emergency. Here’s everything you need to know about the disease, and whether it’s something to fear.
Where did Ebola come from?
Scientists first came upon the virus as a double-whammy in 1976, with two simulataneous outbreaks 825 kilometers (about 512 miles) apart: one in Zaire (what is now northwestern Democratic Republic of the Congo), and one in what is now southern South Sudan. A total of 602 cases were confirmed, and 431 people died.
How did Ebola get its name?
The first known patient with the disease — the index patient — was Mabalo Lokela, headmaster of a school in Yambuku, DRC. Between August 12 and 22, 1976, he toured the country’s border with small group from Yambuku mission along the Ebola river. He came down with malaria-like symptoms, and was originally diagnosed with relapse of malaria on Aug. 26. But by Sept. 5, Lokela was profusely bleeding from all orifices and in critical condition. He died Sept. 8, less than two weeks after the original diagnosis.
How does Ebola spread?
When people come in direct contact with the blood, organs, or other fluids of an animal infected with Ebola — including when the animal is eaten — the disease passes to humans. The evidence strongly points to fruit bats as “the reservoir hosts for ebolaviruses,” of which there are five distinct species. (Only one, the Reston virus, is thought to be non-fatal to humans.) The World Health Organization notes infections have occurred in Africa by handling infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines found sick or dead or in the rainforest.
Once the disease has jumped from animals to humans, infections spread between people by contact with bodily fluids or tissue. It’s not, however, airborne, like the flu. It can also happen by indirect contact with contaminated environments, like hospitals or burial ceremonies. Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks after they’ve recovered.
Why is Ebola so deadly?
Ebola’s high mortality rate — 50 percent to 90 percent — is one of the highest of any known infectious disease. Only a handful have a higher rate, like prion diseases (which include Mad Cow Disease) and meningitis.
Part of the reason it’s so deadly is because Ebola’s symptoms are similar to a variety of other diseases and infections. It starts just like the flu or a really bad cold: fever, feeling weak, muscle pain, a headache and sore throat. That’s followed by vomiting, diarrhea, a rash, and impaired kidney and liver functions. Then “the victim’s face may appear vacant and expressionless” as it gets into the brain. Finally, and because Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever, there’s profuse internal and external bleeding — all of which is similar to malaria, typhoid fever, plague, and meningitis. Ebola can only be definitivly diagnosed by a lab test — which can be difficult to do if there are no labs, and no access to health facilities with labs.
Plus, Ebola has an incubation period of up to 21 days, meaning someone could be infected for three weeks before they ever have a symptom.
But as internist Dr. Marc Siegel points out, there’s one thing that helps spread Ebola more than just about anything else: fear.
How many people has Ebola killed?
What stops Ebola from spreading?
Quarantine. There is no specific treatment or cure for Ebola, and only isolation has been effective in stopping its spread. Poor infrastructure, inadequate medical supplies and unsanitary conditions can hasten Ebola’s reach.
What’s worse that Ebola?
That depends on your definition of “worse,” but other diseases have killed more people in more prolonged, painful ways. Here’s a list of five diseases scarier than Ebola, according to Mother Jones.
Should I be worried?
Generally, no. (Unless, of course, you live or work in one of the areas with a current outbreak.)
Ebola in Guinea is not the Next Big One, an incipient pandemic destined to circle the world, as some anxious observers might imagine. It’s a very grim and local misery, visited upon a small group of unfortunate West Africans, toward whom we should bow in sympathy and continue sending help. It’s not about our fears and dreads. It’s about them. — science writer David Quammen
Professor Melissa Leach of the Institute of Development Studies in Sussex, England put Ebola in context during an interview with WHO. The Economist wrote about how “panic in rich countries could make things worse,” and The New York Times reports on why Ebola isn’t something to fear to the level Hollywood movies would have you believe.
What about the drug that was given to the two Americans who were infected with Ebola?
The experimental drug Zmapp was given to two Americans working in Africa who had become infected after working with Ebola patients, and they appear to be doing better. There are a handful of other experimental drugs in testing stages, and their use — or non-use — in humans has raised ethical concerns as to whether unapproved drugs should be allowed to be given out if patients want them. The BBC reported on how Nigeria became an example of how controversial a clinical trial can become.