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Ebola: 8 Must-Know Facts

Ebola: 8 Must-Know Facts

As an ER physician at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, I’ve received many questions about Ebola. I know that many people have concerns, so I wanted to clarify some information and reassure people. We are fortunate to have such a capable team at Emory who provided care for the two Americans who contracted Ebola in Liberia while also keeping the rest of us safe.

The good news? Both patients have fully recovered from the disease and have been released from the hospital.

1. What is Ebola? Ebola is a contagious virus that is currently causing an outbreak in three countries in the West Africa region. We’ve been aware of this virus for the past 50 years or so, but this is the worst known outbreak to date.

2. What are the symptoms? The symptoms of Ebola don’t appear until about 2 to 21 days after you have been infected. When they do come on, they tend to evolve rapidly—starting with fevers/chills, a headache, body aches and progressing to significant body pain, vomiting, diarrhea and bleeding. In Africa, the mortality rate of this current strain is around 80 percent.

3. Why is this current outbreak so severe? This is the worst outbreak so far for a couple of reasons: First, it involves the most severe of the five Ebola strains. Secondly, while in the past the outbreaks were in small, rural villages (so it could only spread to the small number of people who lived there), the current outbreak has hit big cities in Africa. That means it’s spreading to more people and more quickly since the people in these cities are also more geographically mobile. Lastly, when people in these cities develop symptoms and go to the hospital, they’re going to hospitals that are unprepared to care for a virus as dangerous as Ebola, therefore causing it to be spread within the hospital as well.

4. Do I need to worry? If you live in the U.S., then unless you have been in contact with someone who has had Ebola (for example, you have been to Africa in the past few months or have been in contact with someone from Africa that has contracted Ebola), you do not have a risk of catching Ebola.

5. Is there a cure? There currently is no cure for Ebola, nor is there an Ebola vaccine. What physicians try to do is provide “supportive care,” meaning they try to help the patient and their body survive while the body tries to rid itself of Ebola. This can include intravenous fluids, blood transfusions, dialysis, breathing machines and other extensive treatments. Some experimental treatments exist, but haven’t been proven to work. It does seem that one of the Americans who contracted the virus while working in a charity-based Ebola treatment center in Liberia was given one of these treatments while in Africa.

6. How did Emory protect other patients and the caregivers? Emory has a highly specialized unit designed to care for diseases even more contagious than Ebola. The air is filtered 12 times every hour. There are layers of material to prevent any air or products from leaking out of the unit. The caregivers are wearing specialized protective gear. The water is impermeable and the gear is equipped with motorized breathing filters so the caregivers aren’t even breathing the same air as he is.

7. I’ve heard that HIV has killed more people than Ebola. Is that true? Yes, it is. Comparing the two diseases is truly apples to oranges, however. Ebola is more rapidly deadly, but has killed far fewer people — 2,300 known deaths have occurred from Ebola since the 1960s. In contrast, 36 million people have died worldwide from HIV. There are two reasons for this: First, once someone is infected with Ebola, symptoms are apparent within days and it takes its toll quickly. With HIV, a person may have contracted the disease but there is a window of often several years before any symptoms appear. So a person can be contagious with HIV without knowing it, while that would be extremely rare with Ebola.

8. How is Ebola transmitted? Ebola is contracted through body fluids—blood, vomit, urine stool and probably sweat—and you have to have physical contact with the fluids. It is not aerosolized, meaning it’s not in the air—unlike other diseases such as the flu, measles or severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). There is also no evidence that it can spread via mosquitos or other insects. 

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