Ebola virus has infected two American health workers, a doctor and a hygienist, working in Liberia. It’s killed more than 660 people in the ongoing West African outbreak, the worst ever seen, and infected more than 1,100.
It's frightening, mysterious and yes, it could come here. Here are some things you need to know about Ebola:
Ebola kills anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of patients, depending on the strain and on where the outbreak is. Doctors say patients die from the effects of high fever, vomiting and diarrhea, but early treatment can often save lives. If patients are treated soon enough, saline solution can help stabilize them while their body fights the infection. In the current outbreak, the mortality rate’s been about 60 percent.
It Could Come Here.
No matter where you live, instant jet travel has made any infection capable of spreading worldwide, and that includes Ebola. A Liberian man carried Ebola to Lagos, Nigeria, the biggest city in Africa, by jet. He was isolated quickly but it's possible he could have infected someone else — experts are working to track down people he may have been in contact with.
We Don’t Know Where It Came From.
Bats are the No. 1 suspect, but it is not clear how Ebola jumps from animals to people. Bush meat is one possibility — Ebola can infect apes and monkeys, and people in affected areas often hunt for food. Antelope and porcupines also can spread Ebola when slaughtered. One thing is clear — once there is an outbreak, it’s spread from person to person.
We Don’t Know All the Ways It Spreads.
Ebola definitely spreads through bodily fluids — vomit and diarrhea for sure. Doctors and nurses have been infected while caring for patients and many victims have been infected while washing bodies to prepare for burial. Ebola is one disease that remains infectious after a person has died, and so experts urge precautions during funerals and burials. One study has suggested that a man’s sperm can transmit the virus two months after he has recovered from an infection. But most doctors say people are no longer infectious after they stop showing symptoms. The incubation period — the time between when a person encounters another infected person and beginning to show symptoms themselves — is as long as 21 days, according to the World Health Organization. Doctors do not believe people can transmit the virus before they are showing severe symptoms themselves.
It Doesn’t Make You Pour Blood.
Fictionalized accounts paint lurid pictures of people bleeding to death from Ebola, and the bleeding is perhaps the most horrific aspect of the infection. But Ebola doesn’t always cause bleeding and it’s hardly ever profuse bleeding on the outside. There are many viruses that can can cause hemorrhagic symptoms — Lassa fever, dengue and yellow fever, for instance. Most usually cause vague, flu-like symptoms such as a high fever, muscle aches as well as vomiting and diarrhea. Only 50 to 60 percent of patients develop hemorrhagic complications, which include internal bleeding as well as bleeding from the eyes and sometimes in spots on the skin.
There’s No Cure.
Researchers are working to develop drugs and other treatments for Ebola, but right now there’s nothing doctors can use except what’s called supportive care — giving saline and fever-reducing medication. Viruses are difficult to treat, and the few antivirals on the market don’t seem to help against Ebola. There’s no vaccine, either. There are treatments in the works, including antibody-based approaches.
First published July 29 2014, 2:01 AM
Maggie Fox is senior health writer for NBC News and TODAY, writing top news on health policy, medical treatments and disease.
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She's a former managing editor for healthcare and technology at National Journal and global health and science editor for Reuters based in Washington, D.C. and London.
She's reported for news agencies, radio, newspapers, magazines and television from across Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Europe covering news ranging from war to politics and, of course, health and science. Her reporting has taken Maggie to Lebanon, Syria and Libya; to China, South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan; to Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia and to Ireland and Northern Ireland and across the rest of Europe.
Maggie has won awards from the Society of Business Editors and Writers, the National Immunization Program, the Overseas Press Club and other organizations. She's done fellowships at Harvard Medical School, the National Institutes of Health and the University of Maryland.