O ne of the deadliest things about the Ebola Virus is not that it is almost always fatal. The most catastrophic aspect is that the infection spreads so easily. Nose, eyes, mouth broken skin – all these are a vehicle for the almost certain infection by the Ebola virus after contact with infected people.

Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person have also been responsible for spreading infection.

And the horror of people bleeding – Coagulopathy, bleeding from mucous membranes, seizures, severe headaches are a few of the life threatening symptoms of the deadly Ebola virus that has been spreading through West Africa at an alarming rate.

We have made a list of the most commonly asked questions about Ebola.

What is the Ebola virus disease?

Ebola virus disease (EVD) was previously known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever.

Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, one in a village near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the other in a remote area of Sudan.

How do people become infected with Ebola virus?

In the current outbreak in West Africa, the majority of cases have occurred as a result of human-to-human transmission.

The Ebola virus is transmitted to humans through direct contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals (which include chimpanzees, gorillas, bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines). This occurs when hunters/other persons come into contact with dead animals found lying in the rainforest, or handling raw meat of infected animals. In many of the more rural areas, people still hunt for food.

The virus is spread by coming in close contact with an infected person’s bodily fluid – which is the medium for virus transmission. It’s not airborne, but can be carried by infected animals and passed on to humans.

Ebola is generally transmitted through direct contact with an infected person’s blood or other bodily fluids or indirectly through contact with an object such as a needle that has been contaminated by those fluids.

Once a person is infected, the Ebola virus can spread to other people in the community.

Who is at risk for becoming infected with Ebola virus?

During Ebola outbreaks, healthcare workers, family members or friends in close contact with infected people are most at risk because they come in close contact with infectious secretions/bodily fluids when caring for ill persons

Mourners who have direct contact with the bodies of the deceased as part of burial ceremonies are also at risk for Ebola infection.

Hunters in the rain forest who unknowingly come into contact with animals that are infected are also at risk.

Both the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) stress that the virus is not transmitted through the air and that the risk of contracting the disease from a fellow air traveller on a flight, for instance, is very low.

Something that is foreign to most African people is not being able to care for loved ones and relatives at home. WHO however does not advise families or communities to care for individuals who may present with symptoms of Ebola virus disease in their homes. Rather, seek treatment in a hospital or treatment centre staffed by doctors and nurses qualified and equipped to treat Ebola virus victims.

When should someone seek medical care?

If a person has been in an area known to have Ebola virus disease or in contact with a person known or suspected to have Ebola and they begin to have symptoms, they should seek medical care immediately.

Any cases of persons who are suspected to have the disease should be reported to the nearest health unit without delay. Prompt medical care is essential to improving the rate of survival from the disease.

Where does the virus come from?

Fruit bats are thought to be the natural host for the virus, according to the CDC. The virus is first transmitted to a human, and the infection can spread from there.

What are the signs and symptoms of Ebola?

After infection with the Ebola virus, there is an incubation period of 2 – 21 days (on average, 8 – 10 days) after which the person will start to experience symptoms. The initial symptoms include fever, weakness and lethargy, muscle pain, headache and sometimes sore throat.

This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, and sometimes a rash. Some patients may experience bleeding inside and outside of the body; this is the most serious complication.

What is the treatment for the Ebola Virus?

There is no medication available to treat the Ebola virus itself. Standard treatment is limited to supportive therapy, and severely ill patients require intensive supportive care. This consists of balancing the patient’s fluids and electrolytes, maintaining their oxygen status and blood pressure, and treating them early for any complicating infections. Some patients will recover with the appropriate medical care.

There is no risk of Ebola virus transmission during the incubation period and only low risk of transmission in the early phase of disease.

How do we stop this viral haemorrhagic fever epidemic raging in Africa?

To control further spread of Ebola virus, patients that are suspected to have the Ebola Virus should be isolated from other patients and treated by healthcare workers using very strict precautions to prevent being infected.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is stepping up its response in the most affected areas. One of its critical tasks is training community health workers to deliver essential health messages to people in their villages about how to protect themselves against Ebola and what action to take if someone shows any signs or symptoms of the disease.

How can healthcare workers protect themselves from infection with Ebola virus?

Healthcare workers are at high risk of exposure to the virus when caring for Ebola patients, and need to apply additional infection control precautions over and above the standard healthcare precautions.

This includes wearing personal protective equipment (including gloves, masks, gowns and goggles), ensuring complete equipment sterilisation, and the routine use of disinfectant.

Infected patients must be isolated from other patients and cared for by staff who are trained in the appropriate infection control measures.

Can I survive Ebola if I become ill?

In some outbreaks, the virus is known to have a fatality rate of up to 90 percent. However, the World Health Organization’s most recent numbers on the current outbreak show that roughly 45 percent of patients have survived.

But like most viral infections it also depends on the condition of your immune system and the quality of care you receive.

Image: Health specialists work in an isolation ward for patients at the Doctors Without Borders facility in GuÈkedou, southern Guinea. . AFP PHOTO / SEYLLOU

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