T he 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the worst outbreak of the haemorrhagic disease since it was discovered in 1976. With over 700 deaths to date it is evolving into a huge crisis, not only for Africa, but for the rest of the world.

Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan, and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.

Although there have been no recorded cases in recent time in Kenya, it is good to have some knowledge about what this virus is and how it works. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) here are some of the key facts about Ebola.

Some Facts about the Ebola Virus

  • Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is a severe, often fatal illness in humans.
  • EVD outbreaks have a case fatality rate of up to 90%.
  • EVD outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa, near tropical rainforests.
  • The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission.
  • Severely ill patients require intensive supportive care. No licensed specific treatment or vaccine is available for use in people or animals.

The Centre for Disease Control and prevention (CDC) explains that symptoms present themselves anywhere from 2 to 21 days after infection, but mostly between day 8 and 10. The symptoms are similar to the flu, cholera, typhoid and malaria, which is one reason why this is such an elusive illness that manages to spread before it is detected.

Symptoms of Ebola

Here’s what to look out for in people suspected of being infected with the Ebola virus, or if you think you have been infected. Early symptoms of Ebola typically include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Joint and muscle aches
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vomiting
  • Stomach pain
  • Lack of appetite

Some who become sick with Ebola are able to recover, while others do not. The reasons behind this are not yet fully understood. However, it is known that patients who die usually have not developed a significant immune response to the virus at the time of death. Early treatment is also a positive contributor to survival.

Hiding Sick People is Illegal

According to reports from Liberia and Sierra Leone, one exacerbating factor is the high level of mistrust that local populations have shown towards Western medical professionals. People have hidden family members infected with Ebola or helped them leave hospitals—raising the chance that the disease will spread and prompting Sierra Leone and Liberia to emphasize that hiding infected people is illegal.

Another tragic factor of this disease is the problem of safely but respectfully disposing of victims’ bodies. Without disinfectant, traditional burials, in which family members wash the body, can spread the disease.

Prevention of Ebola

The prevention of Ebola presents many challenges. Because it is still unknown how exactly people are infected with Ebola, there are few established primary prevention measures.

The CDC, in conjunction with the World Health Organization, has developed a set of guidelines to help prevent and control the spread of Ebola HF. Entitled Infection Control for Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers in the African Health Care Setting this is an interesting and informative document.

We do know that people are infectious as long as their blood and secretions contain the virus. This makes touching and shaking hands high risk behaviour in an Ebola area. (Regular hand washing is recommended).

Because nobody really knows how long Ebola viruses can live in the body of a victim the disease is a killer even after death and the infection can continue.

Science writer David Quammen, who has investigated the origins and spread of the virus, writes that “RNA viruses (of which Ebola is one) produce acute infections, severe for a short time and then gone. Either they soon disappear or they kill you.”

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  1. 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

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