Ebola - Understanding the Disease

August 4, 2014

The outbreak of Ebola virus disease (EVD) in West Africa is raising questions about the disease and how it is spread. Now with one American patient being treated at Emory University Hospital, and a second American patient expected to arrive from Liberia on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reassuring the public that an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. is extremely unlikely. However, a warning against travel to affected areas has been issued. 

Ebola is characterized by sudden onset of fever and sickness, accompanied by other nonspecific signs and symptoms, such as joint and muscle aches, weakness, stomach pain, lack of appetite, headache, vomiting, and diarrhea. Patients with severe forms of the disease may develop multi-organ dysfunction, including liver damage, kidney failure, and central nervous system involvement, leading to shock and death.  

In outbreak settings, Ebola virus is typically first spread to humans after contact with infected wildlife and is then spread person-to-person through direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, urine, sweat, semen, and breast milk. The incubation period is usually 8-10 days. Patients can transmit the virus once they exhibit symptoms and through later stages of disease. Ebola can also be spread postmortem, when persons touch the body during funeral preparations.

The virus is not airborne, which means a  person sitting next to an infected person, even if they are contagious, is not extremely likely to be infected.

“As was the case with MERS, the recurring theme is that emerging infectious diseases are only a plane ride away,” said Cherie Drenzek, DVM, state epidemiologist for the Georgia Department of Public Health (DPH). “So, could Ebola virus come to the U.S. by an infected traveler? Yes, it could, but the likelihood of it spreading in the U.S. is less likely than in the countries in West Africa where the Ebola outbreak is ongoing because of our strong infection control practices.”

Health workers and caregivers of the sick are particularly at risk for the disease because they work in close contact with infected patients. The World Health Organization (WHO) said, in this outbreak alone, more than 100 health workers have been infected with Ebola and at least 50 of them have died.

DPH is taking action by alerting health care workers statewide and offering guidance on isolating and testing patients while following strict infection-control procedures, Drenzek said.  

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa was first reported in late March 2014. According to WHO, more than 1,300 cases and more than 700 deaths (case fatality 55-60%) have been reported in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. This is the largest outbreak of EVD ever documented and the first recorded in West Africa.

For more information about EVD visit: www.dph.ga.gov/ebola.

About the Author