The World Health Organization (WHO) declared Ebola an international public health emergency on August 8, 2014, and the number of cases of Ebola continues to rise in West Africa. As of August 22, there have been over 2600 cases and nearly 1500 deaths reported from Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. There is some evidence that these numbers may be vastly underestimated, says WHO in one of its latest updates on the outbreak. (For the latest numbers, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) 2014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa web page.)
In the U.S., Ebola is not a significant public health threat. There have only been two cases in healthcare workers returning to the U.S. for treatment from areas where the virus is common (endemic). However, Ebola is one of the most virulent diseases, with up to 90% of infected people dying of the disease. Currently, there is no therapy and there has been limited experience in caring for people infected with this virus in the U.S. Therefore, the CDC is providing guidance to U.S. hospitals, clinics, and laboratories on prevention and safety measures for controlling spread of the disease. Both of the U.S. patients have recovered and have been released from the hospital. Tests show that they do not have circulating Ebola virus and are not contagious.
Ebola is not an airborne virus; it is spread through direct contact with body fluids from an infected person, such as vomit, stool, blood, or sweat. Signs and symptoms usually appear 2 to 21 days after exposure to the virus and may include fever, severe headache, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle pain, and unexplained bruising and bleeding. People who are ill with the virus can recover, but they need intensive supportive care and are usually hospitalized. Though there are no established protocols for treatment, some experimental therapies are being investigated.
During an outbreak, the people who are at most risk of contracting Ebola are the ones likely to come in contact with contaminated body fluids, such as healthcare workers, family members, friends, and other close contacts of infected patients. Efforts by global health organizations focus on controlling transmission of the virus in these groups. Recommended safety measures include isolating patients, wearing protective clothing, sterilizing equipment, and regular use of disinfectants. All of these aim to prevent contact with contaminated body fluids.
Confirming cases through laboratory testing and tracking the spread of the disease continue to be important tools in containing the spread of Ebola. Identifying and monitoring people who have come into close contact with infected individuals has been credited with keeping the case count low in Nigeria. This has been accomplished with the help of the CDC, according to WHO.
"Practical on-the-ground intelligence is the backbone of a coordinated response. WHO is mapping the outbreak, in great detail, to pinpoint areas of ongoing transmission and locate treatment facilities and supplies," says WHO. "CDC is equipping the hardest-hit countries with computer hardware and software that will soon allow real-time reporting of cases and analysis of trends. This also strengthens the framework for a scaled-up response."
In declaring the public health emergency, WHO recognized the Ebola outbreak as an "extraordinary event." International coordinated efforts between WHO, the CDC, and other global agencies are essential for helping to stop further spread of the disease among countries.
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NOTE: This article is based on research that utilizes the sources cited here as well as the collective experience of the Lab Tests Online Editorial Review Board. This article is periodically reviewed by the Editorial Board and may be updated as a result of the review. Any new sources cited will be added to the list and distinguished from the original sources used.
(August 24, 2014) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever. Available online at http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/index.html through http://www.cdc.gov. Accessed August 25, 2014.
(Updated August 19, 2014) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Hospitalized Patients with Known or Suspected Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever in U.S. Hospitals. Available online at http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/hcp/infection-prevention-and-control-recommendations.html through http://www.cdc.gov. Accessed August 25, 2014.
(August 14 2014) World Health Organization. No early end to the Ebola outbreak. Available online at http://www.who.int/csr/disease/ebola/overview-20140814/en/ through http://www.who.int. Accessed August 25, 2014.
(August 11, 2014) World Health Organization. Barriers to rapid containment of the Ebola outbreak. Available online at http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/ebola/overview-august-2014/en/ through http://www.who.int. Accessed August 25, 2014.
(August 22, 2014) World Health Organization. Ebola virus disease update - west Africa. Available online at http://www.who.int/csr/don/2014_08_22_ebola/en/ through http://www.who.int. Accessed August 25, 2014.