Doctors without Borders has described Ebola as one of the world’s most deadly diseases. With a fatality rate of 50% to 90% and no vaccine to prevent it, this highly infectious virus has the world’s health agencies on high alert.
There have been many Ebola outbreaks over the past 40 years. Most recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo an international health emergency. So far, the outbreak has killed more than 2,000 people. It is the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history. The 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in West Africa killed more than 11,000 people.
While the outbreak is confined to Congo, the disease is causing concern everywhere. Should you be worried for your own health? Probably not, but a bit of knowledge can't hurt. Here are the basics:
1. Its official moniker is Ebola virus disease (EVD); it was formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, and is often just called Ebola. You may see it referred to in any of these ways.
2. EVD first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, one in Sudan and the other in Congo. The Congolese outbreak happened in a village near the Ebola River, which is how the disease got its name. The World Health Organization says the initial source of the Ebola virus was likely from human contact with wild animals through hunting, butchering and preparing the meat.
3. It is thought that fruit bats from the Pteropodidae family are the natural reservoir host, according to the WHO, but the virus can be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids from other infected animals including chimpanzees, gorillas, bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines.
4. Cases in the current outbreak were first identified in August 2018; it started in North Kivu Province and spread throughout the area. This is the 10th and largest Ebola outbreak in Congo.
Ebola virus isolated from patient blood samples. (Photo: NIAID [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)
5. Ebola is caused by infection from a virus of the family Filoviridae, genus Ebolavirus. There are five known Ebola virus strains: Ebola virus (Zaire ebolavirus); Sudan virus (Sudan ebolavirus); Taï Forest virus (Taï Forest ebolavirus, formerly Côte d’Ivoire ebolavirus); and Bundibugyo virus (Bundibugyo ebolavirus). The last one, Reston virus (Reston ebolavirus), causes infection in nonhuman primates but not in humans.
6. Once someone is infected, the virus spreads from human to human by direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with body fluids (such as urine, saliva, feces, vomit and semen) and surfaces contaminated with these fluids. It is not spread through the air or by water or food (except in the handling of bushmeat). Humans are not infectious until they develop symptoms.
7. Symptoms happen anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure (but eight to 10 days on average). Initial symptoms may include sudden fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. These may be followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, symptoms of impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. Death occurs from organ failure and sepsis.
8. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the first vaccine for Ebola in December 2019. The vaccine, Ervebo, protects against Ebola virus disease caused by Zaire ebolavirus in people 18 and older, the FDA said in a statement. The Zaire strain has been responsible for the deaths in the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as well as the more than 11,000 deaths during the 2014 outbreak in West Africa. Once infected, supportive care (rehydration with oral or intravenous fluids) and treatment of specific symptoms improve the chance of survival.
9. The CDC notes that the risk of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is very low.
10. That said, a poll from the Harvard School of Public Health reveals that more than 25% of Americans fear that they or someone in their immediate family may catch Ebola. With the potential for plane travel to transport a stowaway virus does seem scary, the CDC notes that, "While possible, it is unlikely that an infected person who traveled from an area with Ebola to the United States on an airline would spread the disease to fellow passengers."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was written in May 2014.