Ebola Virus Disease

What is Ebola virus disease?

Ebola virus disease (EVD) is a rare but serious disease caused by infection of the Ebola virus. There are five known strains of the virus. Four of them affect people. One affects only nonhuman primates (monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees) and pigs.

EVD was first identified in 1976 near the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). In 2014, large outbreaks occurred in the West African countries of Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were four cases in the United States. Eleven people were treated and one person died. Since then, several ongoing cases have been reported in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Symptoms of Ebola virus disease

Symptoms of EVD often begin 8 to 10 days after a person is infected with the virus. The virus cannot be spread to another person until symptoms appear.

Early symptoms can include:

  • fatigue
  • fever
  • muscle pain
  • headache
  • sore throat
  • weakness

Later symptoms can include:

  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • stomach pain
  • unexplained bruising or bleeding, such as a bloody nose, bloodshot eyes, or bloody urine or diarrhea

What causes Ebola virus disease?

The exact cause of EVD is unknown. Scientists believe that it is animal-borne and most likely comes from bats, which transmit the Ebola virus to other animals and humans. There is no proof that mosquitos or other insects can transmit the virus. Once infected, a person can spread the virus to other people.

The Ebola virus is not as contagious as common viruses, such as colds or the flu. It is not spread through air, water, or food. The Ebola virus is spread through direct contact with:

  • Blood of a person infected with the virus.
  • Body fluids, such as breast milk, stool, saliva, semen, sweat, urine, or vomit, of a person infected with the virus.
  • Objects, such as needles or syringes, that are contaminated with the virus.
  • Animals, such as bats and primates, that are infected with the virus.

Direct contact means that a person’s eye, mouth, nose, or broken skin touches contaminated blood, fluids, or an object. Broken skin may be a cut, scratch, scrape, or open wound.

For most people, the risk of being infected with the Ebola virus is extremely low. The risk increases if you:

  • Travel to an area where known EVD outbreaks have occurred.
  • Help take care of someone infected with the virus.
  • Have direct contact with a person infected with the virus. Even an infected dead body can still spread the virus.

How is Ebola virus disease diagnosed?

Tell your doctor about your symptoms and risk factors (for example, all recent travel). You must have symptoms of EVD and have had possible exposure to EVD in order to be diagnosed with it. Your doctor can do a blood test to confirm if you have been infected.

If you are diagnosed with EVD, you will be put in isolation right away to prevent the virus from spreading.

Can Ebola virus disease be prevented or avoided?

Currently, there is no vaccine to protect against the Ebola virus. However, scientists are working on 2 vaccines that may be available in the future.

It is rare for people in the United States or other developed countries to get infected. You can help lower your risk of infection by doing the following:

  • Avoid traveling to areas where known EVD outbreaks have occurred.
  • Do not touch the blood or body fluids of a person who may be infected with the virus.
  • Do not touch the body of a person who has died from EVD.
  • Do not touch items that may be contaminated with the virus.

People who work in health care settings should be extra cautious around those who are infected or at risk of being infected with the Ebola virus.

Call your doctor right away if you are at increased risk of being infected and you have symptoms of EVD. Avoid contact with other people until you get medical care.

Ebola virus disease treatment

Currently, there is no medicine to treat EVD. Some experimental medicines are being tested.

The main goal of treatment is to manage your symptoms. Options may include:

  • Getting fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Regulating and replacing salts and other chemicals in the body.
  • Maintaining blood pressure.
  • Taking medicine to relieve fever, diarrhea, nausea, and pain.
  • Getting oxygen.
  • Treating other infections.

Close supervision and care by health care professionals is very important. A patient with EVD may need intensive care unit (ICU) services.

Living with Ebola virus disease

Overall, EVD leads to death in about half of people who become infected. People who recover from EVD may still be contagious. The Ebola virus can remain in certain body fluids for some time. For example, men can spread the virus through their semen for up to 3 months after their symptoms first appear. They should not have sex, including oral sex, during this time. The virus also can remain in breast milk, amniotic fluid, eye fluid, and spinal column fluid.

Ebola survivors may have lasting side effects from the virus. These could include fatigue, muscle aches, stomach pain, and eye problems.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How do I know if my symptoms are related to Ebola virus disease?
  • How can I prevent getting infected with the virus if I have to travel to a place with known EVD outbreaks?
  • What treatment options are best for me?
  • How long am I contagious with the virus?
  • Once I have EVD, will I always have it or can I get it again?