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FAQ: The Deadly Ebola Virus

By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Editor's note: This story was updated on Oct. 1, 2014, with new case numbers and the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S.

April 4, 2014 -- 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 7,100 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola in the countries of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone as of Sept. 28. More than 3,300 people have died in the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded.

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On Aug. 8, the WHO declared the Ebola outbreak in West Africa to be a “public health emergency of international concern.” It said “a coordinated international response is deemed essential to stop and reverse the international spread” of the virus.

Four Americans have been infected with the virus while in Africa and brought back to the U.S. for treatment.

Rick Sacra, MD, a doctor with the Christian mission organization SIM, was treated in a 10-bed biocontainment unit at Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Sacra, 51, was treating pregnancy patients at SIM’s ELWA hospital in Monrovia, Liberia. It is not known how he got the virus, SIM said. Sacra was released from the hospital on Sept. 25.

Americans Kent Brantly, MD, and Nancy Writebol were also infected with Ebola. Brantly was working in Liberia with the relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, and Writebol, a SIM missionary, was in Liberia on a joint team with Brantly.

Both were treated at Emory University Hospital’s isolation unit in Atlanta. Writebol was released from the hospital Aug. 19 and Brantly 2 days later. Brantly has since donated blood to Sacra, a colleague and friend. A doctor who was identified only as an American was flown back to the U.S. on Sept. 9 for treatment at Emory University Hospital. While the doctor’s name has not been released, the WHO on Sept. 8 said one of its doctors would be evacuated after catching the virus while working in an Ebola treatment center in Sierra Leone.

On Sept. 16, President Barack Obama announced a plan to scale up the nation’s response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. Responding to a plea for help from the Liberian government, Obama said the Department of Defense will send up to 3,000 personnel there to boost the international response to the outbreak. The U.S. will also build 17 100-bed units to treat Ebola patients.

Ebola was first identified in 1976, when it appeared in outbreaks in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is named for the Ebola River, which runs near the Congolese village where one of the first outbreaks happened.

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