Over the last several weeks, the news in Dallas has been dominated by coverage of the Ebola virus. Now that some of initial fear has subsided, it’s time to become truly educated about the Ebola virus, particularly in case a new series of cases emerge in the United States.
Ebola causes hemorrhagic (bleeding) fever and is thought to have originated in bats. Despite the recent attention it has received, Ebola was first discovered almost 40 years. Since its discovery in 1976, the virus has had 5 major outbreaks in West Africa, leading to more than 2700 deaths. Although there has been recent success with experimental treatments in treating patients afflicted with the Ebola virus outside of Africa, as of now, there is no known cure.
First thing to remember: actual infections with Ebola are incredibly rare. Despite assertions otherwise in the media, Ebola is not spread in the air or in water. Ebola can only be spread through direct contact with the body fluids of a person who has the disease.
Second: although the incubation period for the virus is 21 days, it is not contagious during that time. A person has to have a fever and actively be showing symptoms to pass the Ebola virus to another person.
Third: As of today, only 8 patients in the United States have or have had infection with the Ebola virus. Of these patients, only contracted the disease in the United States, both of who were health care workers caring for a patient infected with the Ebola virus who was demonstrating active signs of infection. Also, as of today, only one patient has died in the United States from Ebola. Recovery from the disease comes from supportive care of infected patients and the patient’s immune response. People who recover from Ebola develop antibodies that allow them to fight off the infection for at least 10 years, if not longer.
Four: Symptoms of Ebola are not subtle. They include high fever (greater than 101.5 degrees F), muscle pain, headache, fatigue, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal pain and unexplained bleeding. Symptoms usually present 8-10 days after exposure to the body fluids of an infected patient, but can occur anywhere from 2 to 21 days.
Five: It’s important to stratify high risk from low risk exposure to Ebola. High risk comes from needle sticks or mucous membrane (lining of mouth, gums, anus, etc.) exposure to blood or other body fluids without appropriate protective garb. Low risk exposure are brief physical contact to a patient with Ebola (pat on back, hug, shaking hands).
Ebola is a scary disease, there’s no way to sugar coat it. That being said, public fear in the United States has dwarfed the actual magnitude of the problem. It’s important to stay calm and remember the facts, particularly if we are faced with more cases in this country.