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Overview of the Ebola Virus: Symptoms, causes and treatments

Dr. Ajay KohliOct 14, 2022

The Ebola virus disease, formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, first appeared in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, with several outbreaks reoccurring even today. Its symptoms include fever, body aches, diarrhoea, and sometimes bleeding. People get infected through direct contact with a patient's blood or secretions or by handling sick or dead animals. Read ahead to know more about this disease.

Ebola Virus

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What is the Ebola Virus?

Ebola is a rare, contagious, and deadly virus that causes hemorrhagic fever, marked by iconic bleeding. During infection, when the virus lurks in the body for more than a week, it begins to wreck the immune system, blood vessels, and vital organs, resulting in multi-organ failure with excessive bleeding and shock, followed by death. 

There are six known strains of the Ebola virus, and four affect humans. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have graded the Ebola virus as a Category A agent, meaning the virus can be used as a bioterror tool owing to its human-to-human mode of transmissibility. 

Ebola is a hardy virus that can survive for several hours on inanimate surfaces like doorknobs, but the virus that is in the body fluids like blood can live much longer. 

Signs and symptoms of the Ebola virus

Symptoms appear 2 to 21 days after a person is infected with the Ebola virus and would feel like the flu or other viral illness early on. There is a sudden onset of the following.

  • High fever

  • Severe headache

  • Joint and muscle pain

  • Sore throat

  • Rash

  • Severe muscle weakness

Other symptoms that develop later as the infection progresses include the following.

  • Nausea

  • Diarrhoea

  • Vomiting

  • Organ failure (reduced function of liver and kidney)

  • Unexplained bleeding from the eyes, ears, nose, and mouth 

Roughly 50% of Ebola patients die due to the rapid onset of diffuse bleeding and shock.

What causes the Ebola virus?

Ebola virus disease (EVD) is caused by the Ebola virus, a member of the filovirus family, which is believed to circulate among wild animals in Sub-Saharan Africa and spread to humans via bats. 

People get the Ebola virus often when they: 

  • handle diseased animals (alive or dead) such as chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, etc.  

  • have unprotected direct contact with contaminated blood and body fluids (breast milk, urine, saliva, vomit faeces, and semen) during sex or burial ceremonies 

  • touch Ebola virus-contaminated objects such as needles, gloves, and sheets 

  • fail to undertake infection-control and personal protective equipment (PPE) measures such as masks, gloves, and gowns in healthcare settings 

Ebola does not spread through the air, water, or food. Even mosquito bites or causal contact are not theoretically known to transmit the virus.

Treatment of the Ebola Virus

With no cure, supportive hospital care is the cornerstone treatment for patients infected with the Ebola virus and those exhibiting symptoms (like other viral haemorrhagic fevers) to improve their odds of survival. It includes the following. 

  • Oxygenation

  • Fluid replacement and dialysis

  • Maintaining stable blood pressure 

  • Managing fever and pain

  • Treating other comorbidities (i.e., other injuries or infections)

Recently, the US FDA has approved two monoclonal antibodies-based treatments that work by binding to the virus and blocking its entry into the person's cell. 

These include the following.

  • Inmazeb (has three monoclonal antibodies: atoltivimab, maftivimab, and odesivimab-ebgn). 

  • Ansuvimab-zykl (Ebanga) 

A study found that patients receiving either treatment have a very high survival rate. 

How to diagnose the Ebola Virus?

It is difficult to diagnose the Ebola virus shortly after infection. However, if your doctor suspects you have Ebola based on your symptoms and travel history, they will confirm the diagnosis by testing your blood and tissues in a laboratory.

The standard laboratory test for Ebola diagnosis is polymerase chain reaction (PCR), where a positive result confirms Ebola infection.Sometimes, antibody detection (ELISA) also helps in detecting exposure and infection by Ebola. 

How can I prevent the Ebola Virus?

Even though the likelihood of contracting the Ebola virus while travelling to Africa is considered very low, it's best to avoid paying visits to areas with active Ebola virus transmission. 

However, if this is not possible, you can still protect yourself from getting a potentially serious infection by following these basic precautions.

  • Wash hands thoroughly and frequently with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitiser.

  • Take care not to come into contact with possibly contaminated body fluids or other surfaces (e.g., clothes, medical equipment, needles).

  • Make sure to stay away from funeral or burial rituals that involve handling infected bodies. 

  • Avoid handling body fluids or raw meat of nonhuman primates and bats.

  • Adhere to safe sex practices using condoms.

Since healthcare workers handling patients suspected or confirmed with the Ebola virus are also at greater risk of contracting Ebola, they must stick to the general principles of infection control, such as the following. 

  • Wear protective clothing when exposed to patients.

  • Exercise basic hand hygiene. 

  • Dispose contaminated needles and other equipment, and sterilise other non-disposable equipment.

  • Dispose infected patient's body fluids and tissues. 

  • Follow safe injection and burial practices.

  • Isolate suspected patients from each other and confirmed patients. 

In addition, the European Medicines Agency and WHO have recently authorised two vaccines for use in adults and children.

  • Ervebo 

  • Zabdeno-Mvabea (for individuals one year and above)

The Ervebo vaccine is administered in a single dose and solely protects against the Zaire virus strain. Meanwhile, Zabdeno-Mvabea is given in two doses: Zabdeno is delivered early, followed by Mvabea roughly eight weeks later. Both vaccines are preventative and are not intended for use during outbreaks.

Risk factors of the Ebola virus

The risk of catching Ebola for the general population is generally low. But the threat is considerably larger for those who reside in or travel to Ebola risk zones. They acquire Ebola disease when they:

  • handle or consume raw meat of wild animals (e.g., bush meat) infected with the Ebola virus. 

  • clean the body fluids or touch the soiled clothes of a symptomatic Ebola patient without the proper protective equipment.

  • live in the same residence and provide direct patient care to the infected individual while they exhibit symptoms.

  • prepare burial for those infected with Ebola.

  • process infected body fluids of an Ebola patient without the proper PPE or standard biosafety procedures.

Alternatively, a person's age, gender, and ethnicity do not make them susceptible to Ebola infection. 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Here’s a list of common queries and their answers related to Ebola.

How soon after exposure do the symptoms develop?

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Symptoms can appear from 2 to 21 days after exposure, like a flu illness.

Is it possible to get Ebola from an infected person who doesn't have any symptoms?

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No. Typically, a symptomless individual is not contagious. And for successful viral transmission, direct contact with a symptomatic individual is required.

How to stop the transmission of the virus if an outbreak happens?

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To break the chain of transmission, isolate the suspected and confirmed patients first. In unison, people who have had close contact with patients should also be contacted and monitored for the development of possible Ebola symptoms.

How long does the Ebola virus remain in the body after a patient recovers?

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The Ebola virus does not stay in the body after a patient fully recovers. However, the virus tends to persist in semen and breast milk for an extended period. Therefore, patients, including pregnant women, must take additional steps to avoid exposing others to these fluids.

If survived, does a person get immune to Ebola?

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Evidence shows that patients who survive an Ebola illness are immune to the virus strain they contracted. However, the chance of subsequent infection from different strains remains.

References

  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560579/

  2. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/ebola-virus-disease

  3. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/ebola/

  4. https://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/index.html

  5. https://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/ebola/faq.htm

  6. https://www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/ebola/basics.html

  7. https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/ebola-and-marburg-fevers/facts/questions-answers

Disclaimer: The content on this page is generic and shared only for informational and explanatory purposes. Please consult a doctor before making any health-related decisions.

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