Posted on Oct. 27, 2014 (
As U.S. hospitals and health authorities step up preparations for handling and containing any further cases of Ebola, the general public has become understandably apprehensive.
There’s no doubt Ebola is a deadly virus. It’s true the current epidemic in Africa is the largest on record and demands a coordinated global response. But knowledge about what Ebola is — and what it isn’t — can bring calm and context to the situation.
Here’s our Ebola 101.
What is Ebola?
Ebola virus disease, previously known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a rare and deadly disease.
Sickness occurs a few days after contact with one of the five strains of Ebola virus, which caused the first documented human cases in 1976, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Ebola symptoms are different from other viruses.
Early onset symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, muscle aches and stomach pain. Diarrhea and vomiting can occur a few days later.
In this way, Ebola presents initially more like a gastrointestinal illness than a respiratory one. If you start coughing, have a runny nose and scratchy throat, it’s extremely unlikely you have contracted anything more than a common cold or flu.
Doctors nationwide have been reminding everybody that immunization is the best protection against illness as flu season approaches.
Ebola spreads via bodily fluids.
Unlike common cold and flu viruses, Ebola is transmitted from person to person by direct contact with bodily fluids.
This means the sweat, tears, mucus, vomit, urine, feces, breast milk, semen or saliva of an infected person has touched another person’s eyes, nose or mouth, or an open cut, wound or abrasion.
Health experts say Ebola is not airborne in the same way measles, chickenpox and other viruses are. However, if a patient with Ebola coughs or sneezes directly on someone, and saliva or mucus enter that person’s eyes, nose or mouth, these fluids may transmit the disease.
Remember, though, that coughing and sneezing are not common symptoms of Ebola.
Ebola can be transmitted in other ways.
A person could contract Ebola by:
- Touching contaminated objects, such as needles and other medical equipment.
- Touching infected animals, their blood or other bodily fluids.
Limited parts of Africa are affected.
In 2014, Ebola has been detected in six West African countries — Liberia, Guinea, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and, most recently, Mali. No new cases have appeared in Nigeria and Senegal for more than 21 days, so those countries are now considered Ebola-free.
The presence of Ebola in West Africa does not prevent travel to other parts of Africa. Africa is a very, very large continent. So large its borders would contain the land masses of all the countries illustrated in the popular online graphic below.
The True Size of Africa
Africa is much larger than most people realize. Outbreak of disease in some areas does not affect the whole continent. (Image by Kai Krause
Within the U.S., the disease is being halted.
A handful of people in the United States have been infected with Ebola.
It’s important to remember only one man, Thomas Duncan, has died here from the sickness, which he contracted in Liberia.
All other cases involve health workers who have had direct contact with Duncan or Ebola patients in West Africa. Each has been successfully treated with basic early interventions in a U.S. hospital.
Ebola has killed very few people.
Seven Ebola outbreaks have been recorded since the 1970s. The current outbreak is considered the worst, having killed about 4,900 of the 10,000 people it has so far infected.
By contrast, it’s estimated that 1.5 million people died of tuberculosis globally last year.
Some health experts are warning that if Ebola is not contained, it may infect as many as 10,000 people a week. The Red Cross has said it expects the disease can be contained within six months.
Ebola is easily killed.
On dried surfaces, such as doorknobs and countertops, the Ebola virus can survive for several hours. In bodily fluids, it can survive up to several days at room temperature.
But Ebola can be killed with hospital-grade disinfectants, such as household bleach.
MultiCare Health System is preparing.
The Centers for Disease Control, health departments and hospital systems nationwide are tightening policies and procedures for caring for potential Ebola patients and stopping the disease’s downstream spread.
Ebola does not have a cure but vaccine efforts are underway. The American Institute of Health recently announced it had a begun a clinical trial of a vaccine.
Meantime, MultiCare is training frontline staff, procuring additional personal protective equipment and has screening and isolation steps in place.
We are following CDC recommendations and working closely with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department and expect to be fully prepared if Ebola comes to our region.
Susan Woodward is our Executive Communications Specialist and a former newspaper reporter who has written for multiple publications in the United States and Australia. You can reach her at [email protected]
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