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Ebola (E-bo-la) fever is a serious disease caused by the Ebola virus, which is named for the Ebola River in the Congo (formerly Zaire). Ebola Fever causes high fever, rash, and bleeding throughout the body. People with Ebola fever often die very quickly. Although scientists know that the disease results from a viral infection, they still have not solved the mystery of its origin and mode of transmission to humans.
The Ebola virus belongs to the group of viruses called filoviruses, as do the Marburg and Reston viruses. Scientists first identified the Marburg virus in 1967, when it caused a small outbreak among sick monkeys brought from Africa to a medical laboratory in Marburg, Germany. In 1976, a filovirus named for the Ebola River in Zaire (now the Congo) caused an epidemic in central Africa that killed hundreds of people. Smaller outbreaks have occurred in Africa since then. In 1989 and 1990, many monkeys shipped from Asia to a research laboratory in Reston, Virginia, died from a disease that was found to have been caused by a filovirus.
How Do People Catch Ebola Fever?
The Ebola virus is spread from person to person through contact with infected blood and body fluids. Doctors also believe that it passes through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Hospital workers are at high risk for Ebola during outbreaks, because they come into contact with blood and body fluids when they care for infected patients. Infected patients often die very quickly, limiting the opportunity for the virus to be transmitted to many other people. This may be why Ebola outbreaks have not become widespread.
What Are the Symptoms?
About 5 to 10 days after infection, people with Ebola get a fever, headache, and body aches. Frequently there is nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, cough, chest pain, and sore throat. Often there is sensitivity to light, swollen lymph glands, rash, as well as other symptoms. Patients also begin excessive bleeding where injections are given. During the second week of infection, people with Ebola may get better, but often they develop severe bleeding from many parts of the body. If this occurs, then the patient will probably not survive.
How Is Ebola Treated?
Treatment of Ebola includes supportive measures, such as blood transfusions, but there is not yet a vaccine or medicine to prevent or cure Ebola virus infection. Isolating people with Ebola fever from other people and wearing masks, gloves, and gowns when taking care of infected patients in the hospital can reduce the chance of an outbreak.
The U.S. and the World
- In 1976, an Ebola outbreak occurred in the Sudan and in Zaire, which is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More than 600 people in those African nations were infected, and 397 died.
- The second worst Ebola outbreak occurred in 1995 in Zaire. There were 315 cases, and 244 deaths.
- According to the World Health Organization, since 1976 there have been nearly 1,100 confirmed cases of Ebola worldwide, with 793 deaths.
- Researchers wonder whether Ebola was responsible for the death of a doctor in Zaire in 1972. He died after performing an autopsy. Was the cadaver he autopsied also an Ebola death?
- In 1961-1962, there was a yellow fever epidemic in Ethiopia, a country next to the Sudan. Was Ebola a factor in that epidemic?
- Researchers even ask: Was a plague in Athens more than 2,400 years ago due to Ebola?
Scientists do not yet know which species of animals harbor filoviruses or how to prevent new outbreaks. They are studying a theory that the virus spreads to people when monkeys from Africa or the Philippines are killed and eaten for food. For now, however, the causes and treatment of Ebola fever remain a medical mystery.
Close, William T. Ebola: A Documentary Novel of Its First Explosion. New York: Ivy Books/Ballantine, 1995.
Preston, Richard. The Hot Zone. New York: Random House, 1994. A suspenseful and factual account of Ebola outbreaks and research.