When asked about Ebola, many people say they know of the disease but did not know about its severity until the recent cases that have appeared in the United States.
The United States has had minimal contact with Ebola on American soil, the first instance occurring at a research facility in Reston, VA in 1989. The Reston outbreak began in primates infected with a variant of Ebola—known as Reston virus, or RESTV—passing it onto researchers who were then strictly quarantined. Though RESTV causes only asymptomatic infections in humans, it became the topic of a 1995 bestseller, “The Hot Zone,” by Richard Preston.
The current strain of Ebola affecting West Africa is believed to have originated in small villages in Central Africa, potentially in primates. However, further research suggests that the virus can be found in the saliva and feces of bats.
Presently, the outbreak in West Africa is the largest in the history of the disease with over 9,200 infected and 4,200 deaths as of October 18. Recently, the World Health Organization estimated that the current outbreak could increase to 10,000 per week by December of this year.
Relief workers, health professionals, and family members of patients are most at risk for exposure due to close contact with bodily fluids while caring for infected individuals. A person is not considered infectious until symptoms appear when they shed the virus through bodily fluids such as urine, feces, sweat, saliva, and vomit.
The first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States was Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who arrived in Dallas, Texas on Sept. 20, 2014. After five days in the U.S., Duncan developed suspicious symptoms and sought medical attention. However, he was initially sent away from the hospital.
Three days later, Duncan’s symptoms worsened and he developed severe vomiting and diarrhea. Upon arrival at the hospital, he was quarantined. He was tested and confirmed to be infected with the Ebola virus and died ten days later on Oct. 8.
Soon after, two nurses who cared for Duncan—Nina Pham and Amber Joy Vinson— contracted the disease, Vinson having boarded a domestic flight to Ohio before learning she was infected. She flew back on Oct. 10, allegedly with permission from the CDC, and was diagnosed the next day.
The danger of Ebola stems from how it mimics the flu virus in its early stages. Symptoms can develop within 2 to 21 days after infection. By the time individuals show definitive signs of the disease, it has progressed to a point where the patient is severely weakened. Definitive signs of the disease include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and hemorrhaging from various areas of the body.
Hemorrhaging is by far the most dangerous of these symptoms. However, fluids and electrolytes lost through vomiting and diarrhea can be replaced through fluid therapy. Early detection and treatment are key elements to patient recovery and survival.
The Ebola virus currently has no cure, though a vaccine and other treatments are being developed and tested by the FDA. Plasma of surviving patients is also being used to treat patients. Right now, intensive therapeutic care is the only way to manage the disease.
The U.S. recently began screening passengers who travel from affected countries in West Africa. Military and medical aid has also been sent to the affected areas to manage the disease.
Though Ebola is a dangerous and frightening disease, the public should remain calm. Unless you have been in direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected patient, it is highly unlikely that you will contract the disease.