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A Visual Guide to Ebola

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a deadly disease caused by a virus. There are five strains, and four of them can make people sick. After entering the body, it kills cells, making some of them explode. It wrecks the immune system, causes heavy bleeding inside the body, and damages almost every organ. 

The virus is scary, but it’s also rare. You can get it only from direct contact with an infected person’s body fluids.

 

How do you get it?

You get Ebola from a person who has the virus, and only while he or she has symptoms. People pass it to others through their body fluids. Blood, stool, and vomit are the most infectious, but semen, urine, sweat, tears, and breast milk also carry it.

To get Ebola, you’d have to get these fluids in your mouth, nose, eyes, genitals, or a break in your skin. You could also pick it up from items that have fluids on them, like needles or sheets.

How You Won’t Get Ebola

You can’t get Ebola from casual contact, like sitting next to an infected person. Air, food, and water don’t carry the virus. But kissing or sharing food or a drink with someone who has Ebola could be a risk, since you might get his saliva in your mouth.

What are the symptoms?

It can take from 2 to 21 days, but usually 8 to 10 days, after infection for signs of Ebola to appear. Symptoms can seem like the flu at first -- sudden fever, feeling tired, muscle pains, headache, and sore throat.

As the disease gets worse, it causes vomiting, diarrhea, rash, and bruising or bleeding without an injury, like from the eyes or gums.

Where is Ebola?

There have been 33 Ebola outbreaks since 1976, but the 2014 outbreak in West Africa is by far the largest. The virus has infected thousands of people and killed more than half of them. It started in Guinea and spread to Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nigeria. A man who traveled to the U.S. from Africa died of Ebola in October. A nurse who helped treat him came down with Ebola. 

Is There a Vaccine for Ebola?

There is no approved medicine or vaccine to treat or prevent Ebola. Scientists have tested some drugs on animals, which seemed to work. But they haven’t studied how the medications affect humans. Researchers are also studying two new vaccines that could prevent Ebola, but they still need to test them in more people to see if they’re safe and if they work.

Treatment

Since there aren’t any drugs to fight the virus, health care teams treat the person’s symptoms and offer basic support care. They:

  • Keep the person hydrated with fluids through an IV.
  • Give oxygen.
  • Maintain their blood pressure.
  • Treat any other infections they have.

A person’s survival depends on how well his immune system works. The sooner he gets medical care, the better the chances he’ll recover.

After Ebola

Ebola survivors have certain proteins, called antibodies, in their blood that may protect them from the same strain of the virus for 10 years or more. But no one knows if they can get sick from the other strains.

It’s rare, but the Ebola virus can stay in semen for 3 months after a man recovers, so he should avoid sex or use a condom to keep from infecting others. The virus can stay in breast milk for 2 weeks after recovery, so women shouldn’t breastfeed during that time.

 

How Can I Prevent It?

The best way to avoid Ebola is to stay away from areas where the virus is common. If you are in an outbreak area:

  • Avoid infected people, their body fluids, and the bodies of anyone who has died from the disease.
  • Avoid contact with wild animals, like bats and monkeys, and their meat.
  • Wash your hands often.

After you leave the area, watch for changes in your health for 21 days, and get medical help right away if you have any symptoms. 

Controlling an Outbreak

Trained public health workers find every person who might have had contact with an infected person. They watch each of those people for 21 days. If someone shows signs of Ebola, health care teams test them, treat them, and keep them away from others. Then the workers track down everyone that person came in contact with as well. The goal is to stop Ebola from spreading further.

Ebola Virus Infection FAQ

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Editor's note: This story was updated on Dec. 10, 2014, with new case numbers.

Perhaps no virus strikes as much fear in people as Ebola, the cause of a deadly outbreak in West Africa.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports more than 17,900 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola, mostly in the countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, as of Dec. 7. Nearly 6,400 people have died in the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded.

Eight confirmed or probable cases have been reported in Mali, along with six deaths, the WHO said.

A surgeon from Sierra Leone who lives in the United States died after being flown to the Nabraska Medical Center for treatment, the hospital said Nov. 17.

Martin Salia, who was reportedly working at a hospital in the Sierra Leone capital of Freetown, arrived in the U.S. Nov. 15 and was taken to the medical center.

He was in extremely critical condition, suffering from kidney and respiratory failure, when he arrived, the hospital said.“We used every possible treatment available to give Dr. Salia every possible opportunity for survival,” said Phil Smith, MD, medical director of the hospital’s biocontainment unit. That included giving him the experimental treatment ZMapp, also given to other Ebola patients, according to the hospital.

But Salia’s disease was “extremely advanced,” Smith said in a statement.

Salia was reportedly a permanent U.S. resident who lived in Maryland with his family. 

Two other Americans – Rick Sacra, MD, and Ashoka Mukpo – recovered from Ebola after being treated in the Omaha isolation unit.

A Doctors Without Borders physician who returned to the U.S. after treating Ebola patients in Guinea was the latest person in the U.S. to be diagnosed with Ebola. Craig Spencer, MD, recovered after getting treatment at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. He was released on Nov. 11.

Spencer, who returned to New York on Oct. 17, was taken to the hospital 6 days later after reporting a fever and vomiting.

Two nurses at a Dallas hospital also caught Ebola after treating Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian man who later died. The nurses, Nina Pham, 26, and Amber Vinson, 29, both work at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital. Duncan arrived in the U.S. on Sept. 20 to visit relatives and 10 days later became the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. He died Oct. 8.

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Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on October 06, 2014

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