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8 Things You Need To Know About Ebola

Cpl. Zachary Wicker shows the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas, Tuesday, Oct. 14,  2014. About 500 Fort Bliss soldiers are preparing for deployment to West Africa where they will provide support in a military effort to contain the Ebola outbreak. /Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)
Cpl. Zachary Wicker shows the use of a germ-protective gear in Fort Bliss, Texas, Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. About 500 Fort Bliss soldiers are preparing for deployment to West Africa where they will provide support in a military effort to contain the Ebola outbreak. /Juan Carlos Llorca/AP)
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Ebola has been dominating the headlines lately, raising concern about the disease potentially spreading to Massachusetts. And after two recent Ebola scares in Boston, local authorities are also trying to reassure the public.

Here's what you need to know about Ebola:

What is Ebola?

Ebola is an infectious disease caused by strains of the Ebola virus. The fatality rate has been around 50 percent, but the latest numbers from the World Health Organization (WHO) put it close to 70 percent.

There are five strains of the Ebola virus — four are known to cause the disease in humans and the fifth is known to affect other primates, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). The disease was first identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). According to the CDC, there have been sporadic outbreaks in the last 15 years in parts of the DRC, Uganda, South Sudan, and the Philippines (where a strain of the virus was detected in pigs in 2008).

How do you get Ebola?

You can only get Ebola if you have direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with:

  • The body fluids (blood, vomit, urine, feces, sweat, semen, spit, other fluids) of a person who is sick or has died from Ebola
  • Objects contaminated with the virus (needles, medical equipment)
  • Infected animals (by contact with their bloods, fluids or infected meat)

Ebola is not spread through the air, water, food or casual contact with another individual, according to the CDC. There are questions about whether the virus could mutate and become airborne.

It's important to note that Ebola can only spread when an infected person is showing symptoms. This means if a person does not have symptoms of Ebola, they cannot spread the disease to other people.

What are the symptoms of Ebola?

Symptoms of the disease include fever, headache, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, muscle pain, and unexplained bruising or bleeding. Symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure.

What countries have been affected?

The WHO considers the latest outbreak the largest and most complex since it initially affected multiple countries in west Africa — specifically Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Senegal. But the disease has played out differently in each country largely due to issues around infrastructure and health care resources.

The total number of cases has reached 8,914 with 4,447 deaths, according to the WHO. The most severely affected countries are Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. In Nigeria and Senegal, there was just one reported case of Ebola, due to an infected traveler entering each country. According to the CDC, people who have traveled to those countries since late September are not as risk for exposure to Ebola. In fact Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, is seen as a success story for quashing the disease.

At least 16 Ebola patients are being treated outside West Africa, according to The New York Times. Three of those cases were diagnosed outside of West Africa -- one in Spain and two in the U.S.  In the U.S., a 42-year-old Texas man died last week after being diagnosed with Ebola. Thomas Eric Duncan had arrived in Dallas after a trip to Liberia and became ill within days. On Sunday, a nurse who cared for Duncan also tested positive for Ebola.

Am I at risk of getting Ebola?

Again, Ebola is only spread through direct contact with the disease (a sick person's body fluids, an infected animal or a contaminated object). That is why health care workers face a higher risk of infection, since they are often in close contact with infected patients. Such transmissions often occur when the proper safety precautions were not strictly practiced, according to the WHO. In addition to health care workers, those most at risk are family members of an infected person, and those in direct contact with the body of a person who has died from Ebola (for instance, during a burial ceremony).

It's unknown how Texas nurse Nina Pham contracted Ebola, but that case has raised questions about hospital protocol. Officials at the Texas hospital where she works said she wore protective gear while caring for Duncan. The head of the CDC has said the diagnosis shows a clear breach in safety protocol, but a specific breach that may have led to her infection has not been identified.

Are there any cases of Ebola in Boston?

No. In a press conference Tuesday, state and local officials tried to ease fears about Ebola, emphasizing that there have been no confirmed cases of the disease anywhere in the state.

"We have zero cases of Ebola in Massachusetts and that means zero cases in Boston," Mayor Marty Walsh said.

Walsh also said people should not be concerned about riding the MBTA or attending large events such as the Head of the Charles. "Simply going on the train, you’re not going to catch Ebola," Walsh said.

Dr. Anita Barry, the director of the infectious disease bureau of the Boston Public Health Commission, said all possible cases of Ebola turned out to be other illnesses.

"We have actually had no recent cases that even meet the definition for CDC’s person under investigation," Barry said.

There were two Ebola scares this past weekend. On Sunday, a man who had traveled to Liberia reported feeling ill and was transported from a Braintree clinic to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. On Monday, a team in protective clothing boarded an Emirates flight from Dubai that landed at Logan Airport after five passengers exhibited flu-like symptoms. In both cases, officials said there was no Ebola.

What are local hospitals doing to deal with potential Ebola cases?

Local hospitals are following the CDC's guidelines for hospitals and health care workers, which include everything from basic hand washing to wearing protective gear (gloves, gown, eye protection, face mask). Other guidelines include safe injection practices, limiting the use of needles, disinfecting equipment, and monitoring exposed personnel.

State Department of Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett said local hospitals are also stepping up their patient screening procedures. When a patient calls, they will be asked about their travel history and whether they have been in contact with anyone who is sick and has traveled to West Africa, in addition to routine questions about symptoms.

Is there a cure for Ebola?

There is currently no licensed vaccine or medicine available for Ebola. According to the WHO, there are two potential vaccines being tested and a range of treatments are also being evaluated. Treatment of specific symptoms and supportive care-rehydration with oral or intravenous fluids can improve survival. According to the CDC, recovering from Ebola depends on a person's immune response and good clinical care.

Here are five other stories to check out for more insight into Ebola:

Zeninjor Enwemeka Twitter Reporter
Zeninjor Enwemeka is a reporter who covers business, tech and culture as part of WBUR's Bostonomix team, which focuses on the innovation economy.

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