Ebola

Ebola is a viral disease endemic to parts of the African continent that causes severe illness and high rates of death.

It is estimated that between 50% and 90% of patients with Ebola will die of the disease. However, the disease is not easy to catch. It is not spread through the air and is not as infectious as the flu or measles. Just sitting next to someone on a plane will not expose you to Ebola – to catch it you need direct contact with infected body fluids through broken skin or mucous membranes (ie, inside your nose, mouth or genital area).

For the latest news, current situation, publications, and resources visit the World Health Organization Ebola website. 

Key points:

  1. Ebola is a severe illness but its spread can be prevented.
  2. Ebola is spread through direct contact with infected body fluids through broken skin or mucous membranes (such as the mouth or eyes).
  3. Signs and symptoms appear between 2 and 21 days after exposure to the virus (most commonly between days 8 and 10). People with Ebola are not infectious until symptoms appear.
  4. If you have stayed in areas where cases were recently reported or have been in contact with someone who develops the disease, make sure you are aware of the symptoms and seek medical attention at the first sign of illness.
  5. Until recently, there was no vaccine. Research is underway to assess several potential vaccines.

Causes

Ebola first appeared in 1976 in remote villages in Central Africa, near tropical rain forests.  The most recent outbreak in West Africa has involved major urban as well as rural areas. The most severely affected countries, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia all have very weak health systems.

Ebola is initially passed to people from wild animals and then spread through direct human-to-human contact. The origin of the virus is unknown but fruit bats are considered the most likely host.

How is Ebola spread?

Ebola causes severe illness but it is not easy to catch:

  • it is not spread through the air and is not as infectious as the flu or measles
  • you can’t catch Ebola just by sitting next to an infected person on a plane.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with infected body fluids (such as blood, saliva, urine or faeces) through broken skin or mucous membranes (such as the mouth or eyes). Or by:

  • handling infected animals (chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, or fruit bats)
  • contact with blood or other body fluids and organs of infected animals
  • eating infected ‘bush meat’ – the meat of African wild animals.

In the 2014 Ebola outbreak, nearly all of the cases were a result of human-to-human transmission.

Who is at greatest risk?

Those who may come in contact with infected blood or body fluids of sick patients are at the highest risk of getting sick, ie,

  • healthcare providers caring for patients with Ebola, especially those who are not wearing appropriate protective equipment (including masks, gowns, and gloves and eye protection)
  • family and friends in close contact with patients who have Ebola.

Symptoms

The onset of the signs and symptoms of Ebola is sudden and includes intense weakness, muscle pain, headache, nausea and sore throat.

Signs and symptoms appear between 2 and 21 days after exposure to the virus (most commonly between days 8 and 10). People with Ebola are not infectious before symptoms appear.

Early signs and symptoms include:

  • fever and chills
  • severe headache
  • joint and muscle ache
  • weakness.

More severe signs and symptoms appear as the illness progresses:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • rash
  • chest pain and cough
  • stomach pain
  • weight loss (severe)
  • impaired kidney and liver function
  • in some cases, internal and external bleeding progressing to shock and multi-organ failure.

Treatment

There are no anti-viral treatments currently available for Ebola. Patients who are severely ill with Ebola require intensive supportive care, which may include basic interventions such as:

  • treating dehydration by providing intravenous fluids (IV) and balancing electrolytes (body salts)
  • maintaining oxygen status and blood pressure
  • treating any infections that occur.

Recovery from Ebola depends on the patient receiving appropriate supportive care and their individual immune response. People who recover from Ebola infection develop antibodies that last for at least 10 years.(CDC, 2014)

Prevention

Researchers are working hard to develop a vaccine. Trials are now underway. Read more about the World Health Organisation article on vaccine progress

To protect yourself from Ebola:

  • wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitiser
  • wash your hands thoroughly for at least one minute
  • do not touch the blood or body fluids of people who are sick
  • do not handle items that may have come in contact with a sick person's blood or body fluids, such as clothing, bedding, needles or medical equipment.

Travel safety

The Ministry of Health recommends people reconsider their need to travel to Ebola-affected countries and offers the following advice if you are unable to avoid travelling to an affected country:

  • Register your details with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
  • Avoid visiting households or healthcare settings that have been affected by an Ebola outbreak.
  • Avoid direct contact with blood and other body fluids of people with Ebola or unknown illnesses. Maintain strict standards of hygiene.
    • Avoid direct contact with bodies of people who died of Ebola or unknown illnesses.
    • Avoid unprotected sex with an infected person or a person recovering from Ebola. (The virus can still be spread through semen for up to 7 weeks.)
    • Avoid contact with any objects, such as needles, that have been contaminated with blood or body fluids.
  • Avoid close contact with or handling of wild animals.
    • Avoid live or dead animals, as both can spread the virus. Animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys and fruit bats may be carriers.
    • Avoid handling raw or undercooked wild meat.
  • Health care workers should practice strict infection control measures including the use of personal protective equipment (like gowns, masks, goggles, and gloves).
  • Stay informed of any changes in the situation.

See: People considering travel to an Ebola-affected country Ministry of Health and Travel advice, World Health Organization for more information.

Ebola's after effects

A recent paper in Science and article in Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine (JHPHM) have highlighted the serious ongoing impact following the Ebola outbreak. 

"The paper’s main analysis, based on computer models, demonstrates that for every month Ebola churns on, the number of children susceptible to measles increases by 20,000. Ebola ran rampant for more than a year, opening a huge opportunity for the disease." Read more – Andrew Myers article in JHPHM. 

Learn more

Ebola information for the public  Ministry of Health (NZ)

Ebola World Health Organization (US), 2015

Credits: Editorial team.