Between the World Health Organisation (WHO) announcing we have 60 days to get the Ebola outbreak under control and Jacqui Lambie declaring that Australia is at risk of some kind of Ebola-infected suicide bomber, there’s a lot of Ebola-hysteria. Before the panic gets even worse, it’s a good time to step back and find out exactly what’s going on.
The source of the outbreak
The latest Ebola outbreak can be traced back to the death of a two-year-old child, Emile, in Guinea in late 2013. It is thought that the child may have been in contact with some fruit bats, suspected to be the native host to the virus.
Eight days after Emile died, his three-year-old sister, Philomena, passed away. Their mother and grandmother both died in January.
The WHO chart has pinpointed the mother and grandmother’s funerals as the likely events that caused the virus to jump borders and sweep across Africa into Sierra Leone and Liberia undetected for three months, before making its way to Nigeria and Senegal.
“Following the young boy’s death, the mysterious disease continued to smoulder undetected, causing several chains of deadly transmission,” the WHO says.
As at October 17, 2014, the WHO had confirmed 9,216 cases of Ebola, including 4,555 deaths. However, Senegal stopped reporting new cases in late August, so this number is expected to be much higher.
After 42 days without a case, Nigeria has now been declared Ebola-free.
The Ebola virus can be transmitted via a number of different ways including ingestion, inhaling and skin-to-skin contact where there is a break in the skin.
Airborne transmission (breathing in the virus) is extremely rare, and has only been reported in healthcare workers. It may also be possible to transfer the virus via your eyes or mouth if contaminated hands touch them.
In terms of transmission through objects, studies suggest that the virus can exist outside the body for several days, but this method of transmission has not been confirmed.
While ritual washing of Ebola victims at funerals and ceremonies has lead to the rapid spread of the disease, people are only at risk of infection if they have physical contact with the victim, the corpse or their body fluids.
The first signs of Ebola are flu-like symptoms. As the name suggests, Ebola Haemmorhagic Fever typically starts with a fever that can be accompanied by chills, a general feeling of malaise, weakness, muscular pain and sometimes a cough.
Before the first symptoms, the patient is not contagious.
By day five to seven of the illness, a rash may develop on the face, neck, limbs or upper body.
Gastrointestinal symptoms usually start to develop several days after infection. Haemorrhaging related to this may occur towards the later stages of the disease.
In non-fatal cases, patients usually begin to improve six to 11 days after the onset of the first symptoms.
Incubation is typically eight to 10 days but can range from two to 21 days. People being monitored for infection are declared Ebola-free after this period.
The fatality rate varies from outbreak to outbreak, with the average settling at around 50 per cent. The WHO estimates the fatality rate for the current West Africa to be around 70 per cent, while other outbreaks have seen fatality rates range from 20 per cent to 90 per cent. Click the owl to see the WHO’s chronology of previous Ebola virus disease outbreaks.
Treatment and prevention
The only approved treatment for Ebola is through rehydration with oral and intravenous fluids as well as treating the individual symptoms. While there has been a recent effort to fast track testing on a trial drug, there is no Ebola-specific medication currently on the market.
Two vaccines will shortly begin human trials but due to the lack of outbreaks in the past, there has been little financial incentive to develop this drug.
The WHO lists a number of important steps to controlling the outbreak, including community engagement, raising awareness and being vigilant towards the disease.
Gloves, facemasks, regular hand washing and separating the healthy and infected population are other containment measures that can be practiced by the general population.