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FAQ: The Deadly Ebola Virus

By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Editor's note: This story was updated on Sept. 4, 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 (WHO) reports more than 3,700 confirmed or suspected cases of Ebola in the countries of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone as of Aug. 31. More than 1,800 people have died in the largest Ebola outbreak ever recorded.

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The WHO also confirmed a case of Ebola in Senegal on Aug. 30. The case is in a man from Guinea who was visiting Senegal.

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.

A third American, a doctor with the Christian mission organization SIM, has been infected with the virus, SIM said in a statement Sept. 2.

The doctor, Rick Sacra, MD, will be coming back to the U.S., although it isn’t known when he will make the trip or where he will be hospitalized, CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said Sept. 3.

Sacra, 51, from Holden, MA, was treating pregnancy patients at SIM’s ELWA hospital in Monrovia, a separate facility from the ELWA hospital’s Ebola isolation ward. It is not known how he got the virus, SIM said.

“Upon onset of the symptoms, the doctor immediately isolated himself and has since been transferred to the ELWA Ebola isolation unit,” SIM said on Sept. 2. “The doctor is doing well and is in good spirits.”

Previously, Americans Kent Brantly, MD, and Nancy Writebol were 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 brought back to the U.S. and treated in a special isolation unit at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital. 

Writebol was released from the hospital Aug. 19 and Brantly 2 days later. Doctors said testing determined that both had recovered and no longer posed a threat of infecting others. 

In a statement issued while he was hospitalized, Brantly wrote that while treating those with Ebola in Liberia, he “held the hands of countless individuals as this terrible disease took their lives away from them. I witnessed the horror firsthand, and I can still remember every face and name.”

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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