Since its outbreak in West Africa, thousands of people have died from Ebola. But what exactly is Ebola? How does it spread? And can it be cured or treated?
Ebola is a contagious disease caused by the Ebola virus. The disease spreads through contact with infected body fluids, and is in most cases fatal.
The Ebola virus infects the immune cells in the body and uses these to replicate itself and to travel to other organs, such as the liver, the kidneys and even the brain. This way, the virus gradually takes control of the body and brings a lot of damage, especially to the blood vessels.
Ebola starts with flu-like symptoms, such as high and sudden fever, headache and a sore throat. Other common symptoms are muscle pain, rash, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. The blood vessel damage causes bleeding, which occurs within the body, underneath the skin as well as from eyes, nose and ears. Finally, organs start failing. It is the blood loss in combination with organ failure that makes Ebola so deadly.
Ebola evolves fast: 50 to 90% of the victims die within 1 to 2 weeks.
Ebola does not travel through the air like flu. It spreads through direct contact with blood, vomit, saliva, semen or other bodily fluids of an infected person. Until a person is showing the first symptoms – in other words: is visibly sick –, he or she is not contagious. Dead bodies, however, remain infectious for days.
The incubation period, which is the average time between catching the virus and the first symptoms, usually varies between 7 and 10 days.
There is currently no proven cure for Ebola. Until a treatment or vaccine becomes available, the only way to prevent infection is reducing risks and taking protective measures. This includes avoiding unnecessary contact, ensuring proper hygiene, wearing protective clothing, prompt burial of victims, and putting suspected and infected people into quarantine.
The risk of catching Ebola is very low in countries with good access to medical care: patients who can be treated early enough – before organ failure happens – have a better chance of survival…