The name for this virus comes from the Ebola River in what is today the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was here where it is believed by some the first outbreak occurred in 1976. Some believe the first outbreak was in what is today South Sudan.
Ebola is a filovirus – a family of viruses that attack internal organs and cause bleeding or haemorrhaging of the blood vessels. We do not know the normal host species but we suspect it may have originated in fruit bats.
How is it spread?
Ebola is spread through contact with infected bodily fluid such as tears, vomit, breast milk, urine, saliva, semen and sweat, which could be passed on in bedding, towels and unwashed clothes.
Signs and symptoms
The first symptoms appear two days or three weeks after contracting the virus and are first evident in flu-like symptoms of fever, weakness, headaches, sore throat and muscle aches. This is followed by a loss of appetite as well as vomiting and diarrhoea with a possible body rash appearing. In most cases bleeding then starts through the skin, bloody vomit and other bloody excretions.
Death occurs between seven and sixteen days from the first signs of the disease.
There is no known cure for Ebola. The priority is to treat patients in isolation and to manage the symptoms as much as possible. This involves replacing fluids and reducing pain and anxiety. To prevent dehydration, infected people are given lots of fluids and if possible put on a drip. If bleeding has begun, replacing blood could help prevent organ failure.
Experimental drugs have been used during the 2014 outbreak and the World Health Organisation issued a statement in August 2014 giving permission to use unapproved drugs to reduce death and try to prevent the global spread of the virus.
What can we do?
If people live in an area where the disease is evident, it is important to ensure the bodies of animals that have died from the disease are disposed correctly or preferably cremated. Gloves and other protective clothing need to be worn when dealing with someone suspected of having the virus or preparing a human body for burial – preferably cremation and not embalming.
Meat needs to be cooked properly, water needs to be boiled for at least five minutes and alcohol-based cleaning fluids need to be used in the home.
The most important piece of advice it to report any suspected symptoms to the relevant authorities to get early treatment and prevent the spread of the disease. The suspected patient needs to be kept in quarantine until further advice has been issued.