This article was written and contributed to the SiriusXM Blog by Marc Siegel, MD, Medical Director of SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio.
The World Health Organization has reported that as of August 1, 2014, there are 1,603 suspect and confirmed cases of Ebola and 887 deaths resulting from the outbreak in the West African nations of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Medical Director of SiriusXM’s Doctor Radio Marc Siegel, MD has rounded up nine facts you need to know regarding Ebola.
1. What is Ebola?
Ebola virus disease (EVD) is a hemorrhagic fever, which means that it impacts the vascular system and the body’s ability to regulate itself is impaired. There are five species of the virus capable of infecting humans, but two do not seem to cause illness (so you can catch it, but you won’t notice it.) The other three cause various degrees of illness, and the Zaire Ebola is the deadliest. This has been identified as the cause of the current outbreak. Other viruses, like Marburg and Lassa Fever, are in the same class. Lassa is much more common in West Africa, with over 100,000 cases per year, and there have been at least eight cases in the U.S. earlier this year. Marburg (very similar to Ebola) appeared in Colorado in 2009, but didn’t spread.
2. What happens when someone is infected?
Once infected with Ebola, the virus invades the body’s cells and starts replicating, bursting the cells and producing a destructive protein that attaches to the cells on the inside of the blood vessels. In the first days, symptoms are very similar to the flu – fatigue, fever, headaches and body aches, and can progress to nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Often the immune system is eluded in patients who don’t mount a response to the infection. Those who are infected usually develop multi-organ system failure (especially in the liver and kidneys) as the virus swarms through the body. Because of the attack on the blood vessels, the end of the disease may include internal and external bleeding, bruising, shock or even death.
3. How does the virus spread?
The Ebola virus is not like a cold or flu – it is only spread through direct contact with bodily fluids (like blood, urine or feces) from infected people who have symptoms. The Ebola virus has been spreading from human to human since the 1970s, but outbreaks have been stamped out because the virus doesn’t spread easily and is a stable, non-mutating virus. The current outbreak is more difficult because it is spreading in a very populated area, whereas previous cases were isolated in very rural areas.
4. Should I be afraid of Ebola?
We are naturally afraid of unknown, mysterious, killer viruses. But as in previous situations, like the MERS and SARS (2003) and bird flu (2005) headlines, the fear of Ebola has been blown out of proportion to the actual personal risk of contracting the disease.
5. Why is it spreading so quickly in Africa?
The problem in West Africa is due to a combination of factors, including porous international borders, outbreaks occurring in densely populated regions, poor health care infrastructure, and native practices that spread the virus (including washing dead bodies, close contact with sick people, and fear of international health authorities.)
6. Will there be an outbreak in the U.S.?
The risk of an outbreak here in the U.S. is EXTREMELY low because our health controls are much better. Even if an Ebola case appears here, it would be quickly contained and isolated, unlike the situation in West Africa.
7. Is it safe to bring the infected doctor and nurse to the U.S.?
Kent Brantly was brought back to the U.S. by Samaritan’s Purse in a specialized plane with an isolation unit. The CDC has made his transfer here to the U.S. very safe. He is currently housed in a hospital isolation unit that is the same type used for SARS, with negative air pressure Hazmat suit (which means no air escapes out from his suit.) The chance of spread is infinitesimally small according to an interview that I did with Dr. Fauci (Director of NIAID at the National Institute of Health) and Dr. Frieden (Director of the CDC). The same precautions and isolation protocols will be used for Nancy Writebol, the infected nurse coming over now.
8. Is there a vaccine or treatment for Ebola?
Right now, there is no vaccine or cure. However, several anti-viral and antibody treatments and at least four vaccines are being researched. The NIH currently has a vaccine that has proven very effective in monkeys, and human trials start next month.
9. Is this the biggest outbreak worry?
At the same time we are focused on Ebola, there is a big outbreak of cholera in nearby Cameroon that isn’t getting all the international health attention it deserves, in part because of Ebola taking up the headlines, and in part because of political strife in the region that’s preventing the government from immunizing the people. It has infected 1,300 people in two months, killing at least 65 and is spreading.