GLOBAL THREAT: EBOLA VIRUS. The Ebola virus has quickly transformed into a health epidemic that we should all be aware of. Knut Holt explains what it actually is
Ebola is a contagious viral disease that attacks the digestive system from the mouth, anus, kidneys, circulatory system, liver and, to a less severe degree the skin, eyes, nose and ears, which eventually results in multiple organ failure if left untreated. The disease is 40 to 60 percent lethal with treatment and near 100 percent lethal without.
It appears to be a relatively new disease, at least among humans, discovered first in the areas of Zaire in 1976. The virus is named after the Ebola River, which runs close by to the area of its original discovery. Up until now there have been several outbreaks of the disease but most of them contained in remote areas in Western Africa.
The first reported case of the incumbent outbreak was in December 2013 in Guéckédou, a forested area of Guinea close to the borders of Liberia and Sierra Leone. As of mid-October this year, over 9,216 cases have been reported and over 4,500 have proved fatal. However, in light of data gathering challenges in the affected areas, the number could be much higher. Despite the fact that the realities of the virus may seem far away from home, it is important for all of us to have a basic understanding of Ebola virus.
The disease is caused by a group of several similar viruses, called Ebolavirus, which are from the virus family Filoviridae. When they become infected, the cells are immediately commanded to make a corresponding DNA copy by an enzyme, which results in quick multiplication of the infection within the body. The virus spreads from person to person by exchange of blood, corporeal fluids and other materials from the body. It can also be spread through animals that transmit the virus through biting, for example by fruit bats. The virus does not spread easily through air over extended distances from one human to another. This is a certainly a good thing in terms of containing the spread of the Ebola virus, however the most pressing issue is the fact that the virus is extremely contagious by close human contact. As a consequence, in areas where medical personal aren’t operating with suitable impermeable clothing and air filtration masks, there is a high risk of further infection.
During the 2014 Ebola virus epidemic, the virus has spread more rapidly out of traditional restricted zones to wider areas in Western Africa, largely due to the unpreparedness of healthcare services and professionals to deal with such a contagious virus. However, the spread may even indicate the presence of new strains of the virus capable of more rapid transmission or a signicant increase in the amount of animals that are carrying the virus.
“The virus is named after the Ebola River, which runs close by to the area of its original discovery”
The incubation period varies from two days to 21 days. Humans are not infectious until after they develop symptoms. The disease begins with high fever, sore throat, lethargy, muscle and joint ache and severe headache. Later there will be nausea, stomach pain, diarrhea, vomiting, swallowing problems and elevated rashes. The function of the liver, kidneys and circulatory system can suffer gravely due to tissue death, inner bleeding, blood clotting and disturbances in the distribution of body fluids. An infected person’s blood pressure can also fall to dangerously low levels. In severe cases that usually prove fatal, extensive tissue destruction inside bodily cavities can occur, resulting in bleeding from the ears, the nose, in the mouth and through the rectum. Typically, death is eventually caused by the failure of vital organs. Non-lethal cases will usually leave a patient’s immune system very weak, and the recovery period is subsequently a long process.
Early symptoms of the disease can resemble many other feverish diseases with bleeding, like typhoid or malaria. For a secure diagnosis, one is tested for immunological reactions and the presence of enzymes linked to the viral infection in blood samples.
As of now, there is no vaccine that is directly effective against the viral infection; however, such vaccines are being developed. General treatments consist of supporting the body with oxygen, fluid, electrolytes, nourishment, circulation support and blood transfusions, for as long as the infection is active and also in the recovery period that might follow. Infected patients are isolated and populations that house infected individuals are also isolated by restrictions regarding the entering and leaving of the area. Medical personal and support staff that go near to the patients use impermeable clothing and breathing apparatus that allows for air filtration. In advanced treatment settings, the patient is shielded from non-immediate surroundings with impenetrable barriers and air filters that improve the chances of recovery.