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FAQ: The Deadly Ebola Virus

By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Editor's note: This story was updated on Aug. 1, 2014.

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 reports more than 1,300 cases of Ebola in the countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone as of July 31. More than 720 people have died.

Two Americans are among those infected. Dr. Kent Brantly, working in Liberia with the relief organization Samaritan’s Purse, and Nancy Writebol, a Samaritan’s Purse missionary in Liberia, were in “stable but grave” condition as of July 31, but Brantly had taken “a slight turn for the worse,” the organization says.

On July 31, a specially equipped medical charter flight left Cartersville, GA, for Liberia to evacuate both Americans, CNN reported, citing a source who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital confirmed it expects to receive one Ebola patient. It was not immediately known which American would be taken to Atlanta and where the other might go.

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.

WebMD asked Amesh Adalja, MD, about the virus and efforts to contain it. Adalja is an infectious disease doctor at the University of Pittsburgh.

Q. How deadly is Ebola?

A. The Ebola strain in the current outbreak is the most lethal of the five known strains of the virus. It is called Ebola Zaire and usually kills up to 9 out of 10 infected people. But the high death rate might be due to a lack of modern medical care, Adalja says. “It’s hard to say exactly what the [death] rate would be in a modern hospital with all of its intensive care units.”

On July 28, the CDC said the Ebola death rate in the West African outbreak is actually about 6 in 10, rather than 9 in 10. That indicates early treatment efforts have been effective, says Stephan Monroe. He's the deputy director of the National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases at the CDC.

On July 31, the CDC issued a travel advisory recommending against non-essential travel to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH.

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 vomiting, diarrhea, and internal and external bleeding, which can spread the virus. The kidneys and liver begin to fail.

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