Ebola Mania: Africa in Peril

The first case of the Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks in Nzara, Sudan and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa. The virus is named after the Ebola River, which is located near the town of Yambuku. It has a fatality rate of 50% when treated, up to 90% when left untreated, and is also lethal to non-human primates and duikers (a species of medium sized antelope). The 2014 Ebola outbreak is the largest outbreak in history and the first to occur in Western Africa. The countries currently affected include Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) is working together with U.S. government agencies, the WHO (World Health Organization), and other domestic and international partners to prevent the spread of the virus and care for those already infected.

The Ebola virus is only found in proximity to rainforests and their natural hosts, the fruit bat. It is not entirely clear how Ebola is spread between animals, but a human first becomes infected after coming into contact with the animal’s body fluids. The handling of infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, duikers, and porcupines found ill or dead in the rainforest most commonly spread the virus to humans. After a human is infected, Ebola spreads between humans through direct or indirect contact. Direct contact includes contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs, or other bodily fluids of infected people. Indirect contact includes contact with environments contaminated with such fluid. Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can transmit the virus, and men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks after recovery from the illness. Because of the specific environment and animals in which the virus thrives, the Ebola outbreak does not pose a significant threat to the U.S. public.

The initial symptoms of the Ebola virus are the sudden onset of a fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat. Because these symptoms are so similar to the flu, Ebola is often misdiagnosed and the infected does not seek help as soon as they should. As the illness progresses, patients often experience vomiting, diarrhea, and impaired kidney and liver function. In about 50% of cases, patients bleed internally as well as externally and sometimes develop maculopapular rashes, which are characterized by a flat red area on the skin which is covered with small confluent bumps. On average, symptoms start from 8 to 10 days after contracting the virus. It is easy to pass the virus before being aware of any infection.

Currently, there is no licensed vaccine for the Ebola Virus Disease. The most promising candidates are DNA vaccines which are derived from adenoviruses like the Vesicular Stomatitis Indiana virus or Filo virus-like particles. Though vaccines take about six months to work, non-human primates have been successfully immunized. Due to these successful tests, the vaccine was approved for clinical testing on humans, with positive results. Some severely ill patients require intensive supportive care. Though no specific treatment is available, new drug therapies are being evaluated. While in intensive care, doctors must help control bleeding, maintain oxygen levels, hydrate the patient, manage pain, and treat bacterial or fungal secondary infections caused by the maculopapular rashes all simultaneously. As of August 22 there are 2,615 suspected and confirmed cases total and 1,528 deaths from the Ebola Virus Disease.

While helping fight the Ebola outbreak, two Americans became infected. Nancy Writebol, age 59, and her colleague Dr. Kent Brantly, 33, were flown to Atlanta to be treated for the deadly disease on July 28. They were placed in a special isolation unit designed to optimize care for those with highly infectious diseases. Their symptoms were treated and they were given the experimental drug called ZMapp. Brantly also received a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old boy who recovered from Ebola in Liberia. Then on August 21, the pair was released from the hospital after every blood test came back negative for the virus for several days. The experimental drugs being developed have shown a lot of promise in fighting the disease. And as of now, prevention is a major part of the fight.

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