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FAQ: The Deadly Ebola Virus

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On July 31, the CDC issued a travel advisory recommending against non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone.

Q. What are the symptoms?

A. At first, the symptoms are like a bad case of the fluhigh fever, muscle aches, headache, sore throat, and weakness. They are followed quickly by vomitingdiarrhea, and internal and external bleeding, which can spread the virus. The kidneys and liver begin to fail.

Ebola Zaire kills people quickly, typically 7 to 14 days after symptoms appear, Adalja says.

A person can have the virus but not show any symptoms for as long as 3 weeks, he says. People who survive can still have the virus in their system for weeks afterward.

The virus has been detected in semen up to 7 weeks after recovery, according to the WHO. But this is very rare, says Thomas Geisbert, PhD, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Geisbert has been studying the Ebola virus since 1988.

Q. How does the virus spread?

A. Ebola isn’t as contagious as more common viruses, such as colds, influenza, or measles, Adalja says. It spreads to people by close contact with skin and bodily fluids from infected animals, such as fruit bats and monkeys. Then it spreads from person to person the same way.

“The key message is to minimize bodily fluid exposures,” Adalja says.

Q. What precautions should people take if they’re concerned they might come in contact with someone infected with Ebola?

A. “Ebola is very hard to catch,” Adalja emphasizes. Infected people are contagious only after symptoms appear, by which time close contacts, such as health care workers and family members, would use “universal precautions.” That's an infection control approach in which all blood and certain body fluids are treated as if they are infectious for diseases that can be borne in them, Adalja says.

Even though the virus can be transmitted by kissing or sex, people with Ebola symptoms are so sick that they’re not typically taking part in those behaviors, he says.

Q. Is there a cure or a vaccine to protect against it?

A. No, but scientists are working on both. The National Institutes of Health is taking part in human testing of an experimental Ebola vaccine, which began in early September. Testing for that vaccine is also taking place in the U.K. and Mali.

The agency expects to have results of that trial by the end of 2014. The NIH is also testing several other potential vaccines.

There is no specific treatment for Ebola. The only treatments available are supportive kinds, such as IV fluids and medications to level out blood pressure, a breathing machine, and transfusions, Adalja says.

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