Above: Image © iStockphoto.com/CTRPhotos

Imagine an infection that causes you to bleed from every opening in your body - nose, ears, eyes, and even the pores on your skin! It sounds like something from a horror movies, but it is actually an extreme symptom of the Ebola virus disease, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever.

Occasionally, Africa experiences an outbreak of Ebola in the human population, when the number of cases is much higher than what would normally be expected in a particular region. One such outbreak began in West Africa in early 2014, and by mid August there had been over 1,800 confirmed cases, resulting in more than 1,000 deaths.

Did you know? Ebola virus disease is one of the world’s most deadly infections. It causes death in up to 90% of those infected.The disease is spread from person to person through contact with infected bodily fluids such as blood, stool, vomit, saliva, urine, and semen. Disease symptoms may not appear until 2 to 21 days after infection, and infected people are not contagious from the time they are first exposed to the virus until they start to show symptoms. This is called the incubation period.

Patients become contagious once they start to show symptoms. Initial symptoms are similar to the flu; fever, headache, nausea, and vomiting. Therefore, anyone presenting flu-like symptoms is treated as if they have Ebola. Things can quickly get a lot worse: organs such as the kidneys and liver start to shut down and internal and external bleeding occur. Patients with Ebola are cared for by preventing dehydration, and some eventually recover from the disease.

Sadly there is no cure or vaccine for this disease, although a few people have been treated with an experimental drug called ZMapp with encouraging results. Canadian scientists are among those working on drugs that could treat, prevent or even cure Ebola. On August 12, 2014, the Canadian government announced that it was offering 1,000 doses of VSV-EBOV, an experimental vaccine, to the World Health Organization.

Did you know? The Ebola virus is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The first outbreak of the disease occurred in the nearby village of Yambuku in 1976. Scientists are not exactly sure how or where the Ebola virus first appeared in animals and how it spread to humans. Some believe that fruit bats act as a host for the disease, spreading it to other animals that come in contact with saliva or faeces from infected bats. The disease may have initially spread to humans from infected monkeys that are frequently hunted and consumed in rural Africa.

Coming in contact with infected blood, organs or bodily tissues and secretions can spread the disease. There is also evidence that the disease in Africa was also spread to humans through infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, forest antelope and porcupines after coming into contact with infected blood, milk or raw or under-cooked meat. Health care workers take precautions such as wearing gloves, long-sleeved gowns and face masks.

As of the end of the summer, the 2014 Ebola outbreak has not spread outside of Africa. However, related viruses, such as the much less deadly the Reston virus, have been observed in other parts of the world. People infected with the Reston virus typically do not develop symptoms, meaning that the virus does not actually cause disease in humans.

Did you know? Scientists who study dangerous diseases like Ebola work in in Biosafety Level 4 (BSL-4) labs, which follow very strict security procedures and safety protocols to keep scientists and the public safe.Ebola outbreaks have been contained with the help of the World Health Organization (WHO), which helps monitor outbreaks, treat patients for dehydration, ensure proper burial of the deceased and, most importantly, educate the public about the disease. Infection control measures put in place during outbreaks include hand washing, thoroughly cooking meat, and the use of protective equipment by hospital workers and those handling infected animals.

Ebola is a scary disease. However, scientists are working hard to find ways to treat, prevent and eventually cure it. In the meantime, the WHO and other public health agencies are keeping outbreaks contained and educating the public about the disease and how it is spread.

References

2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa - outbreak distribution Map (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) Ebola: The facts behind a frightening virus (National Public Radio) Ebola virus - pathogen safety data sheet - infectious substances (Public Health Agency of Canada) Biosafety level 4 laboratory tour (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) Ebola virus ecology - Virus ecology graphic (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention) Ebola virus disease (World Health Organization) Ebola: Experimental drugs and vaccines (BBC News Health) Canadians leading anti-Ebola research (Canadian Medical Association Journal)

Kelly Resmer

Kelly is a chemistry undergraduate laboratory instructor in Halifax.  She loves working with students in the lab, watching chemistry happen! She has a PhD in chemistry and is very interested in studying and learning about bacteria, the good and the bad ones! 

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