What is Ebola and should I be worried?

Recently, I have received many questions from parents worried about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. So for this week’s post, I will try to answer some common questions.

What is Ebola and should I be worried?

Ebola is a virus that is common in fruit bats in Central and West Africa.  It can also be transmitted to chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, and porcupines in the rain forest. Humans become infected through contact with infected animals (typically through hunting and eating infected animals). The 2014 Ebola outbreak is many times larger than all previous outbreaks since the virus was recognized in 1976. So far, about 1,250 people have died and 2,250 cases have been officially recorded. The WHO suspects the outbreak may actually be several times larger.

ebola virus

What are the symptoms of Ebola and how does the illness progress?

Symptoms usually appear about eight to 10 days after exposure.  At first, it seems much like influenza with headache, fever, muscle aches, and sometimes a rash. Then, diarrhea and vomiting follow. In roughly half of the cases, the patient begins to bleed. They may vomit blood or pass it in urine, or bleed under the skin or from their eyes or mouths. Finally, blood vessels deep in the body begin leaking fluid, causing blood pressure to fall so low that the heart, kidneys, liver and other organs fail.

How contagious is it?

The Ebola virus is not spread through the air, like influenza for example.   So just being near someone with the Ebola virus is not enough to become infected. Instead, Ebola spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids. If an infected person’s blood or vomit gets in another person’s eyes, nose or mouth, infection is likely.  The virus can survive on surfaces, so any object contaminated with bodily fluids, like a latex glove or a hypodermic needle, may spread the disease. Most new cases are occurring among people who have been taking care of sick relatives or who have prepared an infected body for burial.  Nurses and doctors are at high risk because of the nature of their work, especially if they have not been properly equipped with or trained to use and decontaminate protective gear correctly.

Is there any treatment or vaccines to prevent infection?

No, there are not. As Ebola is a virus, antibiotics are not helpful. Treatment is supportive, meaning efforts are made to control fever, reduce pain, limit bleeding and provide IV fluids. An experimental treatment with antibodies made in mice is being used in a small number of cases.  This medication is expensive and available in very limited quantities. It is not clear at this time if this treatment is effective.

Is Ebola likely to become a problem in Thailand?

The short answer is no.  The natural reservoir for the Ebola virus is a bat species found in West African rain forests.  Without major genetic changes, the virus is unlikely to become common in other parts of the world. It is possible for infected person from the outbreak area to travel on an airplane during the early stages of the illness. This is why the WHO and national health authorities are taking dramatic steps to isolate, screen and quarantine the outbreak area.  Finally, even if an Ebola victim did manage to make it to Thailand, through effective infection control measures it is quite possible to prevent healthcare workers or family members from becoming infected. My main advice to parents is to absolutely avoid travel to the affected countries. It seems that this outbreak may continue for many more months. If you would like to help support the response, I encourage you to visit this site and make a donation to Doctors without Borders, an organization that is working hard to control the outbreak.

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