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Nasty Infectious Diseases You Want To Avoid - Ebola

Updated on December 31, 2008

This illness is caused by one of the deadliest viruses known to science: the Ebola virus which kills up to 90 percent of everyone who contracts the disease. The virus was discovered in 1976 in Zaire and in a nearby western equatorial province of the Sudan, where it killed almost all of the 600 people who were infected. An isolated case appeared in Tandala, Zaire, in 1977, and another outbreak in the Sudan appeared in 1979, again killing 90 percent of its victims. There have been several "brushfire" outbreaks sporadically since. Still, despite fears of a modern-day plague, there has been little spread of the deadly Ebola infection in developed countries. A primary reason for the spread of the disease in poorer countries appears to be the lack of clean water and adequate hospital supplies, requiring reuse of syringes and needles.

Cause - The four currently identified Ebola viruses are known as filoviruses for their long, lamentlike appearance under a microscope. The chief means of spreading Ebola virus is through direct contact with contaminated blood, vomit, feces, and urine. The virus may also be passed by touching the body of someone who has died of Ebola or from breathing in Ebola droplets in the air. Health care workers have often been infected while caring for patients. The virus is also sometimes present in sweat glands and air sacs in the lungs. Its incubation period is between 2 and 21 days (and averages less than 10). Transmission of the virus may also occur via semen up to seven weeks after clinical recovery. Past studies have shown that the greatest risk of spreading Ebola virus is to those who have closest contact with an infected person, such as health care workers and spouses.

Symptoms - Ebola hemorrhagic fever is characterized by the sudden onset of fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea, rash, kidney and liver failure, and massive internal and external bleeding.

Diagnosis - Specialized lab tests (not commercially available) on blood specimens can detect specific antigens or antibodies and isolate the virus. Because these tests present an extreme risk to lab workers, they are only conducted under maximum containment procedures. A skin test developed by scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has helped identify cases that otherwise would have gone undiagnosed. The test offers a safe way to send skin samples from remote African areas to labs in Europe and the United States. In the field, a health worker can put a piece of skin in a preservative that kills any virus present. After arrival in a lab, the skin is processed with chemicals and other substances. If Ebola virus is present, it turns bright red.

Treatment - There is no specific treatment or vaccine that exists for Ebola hemorrhagic fever, although general good hygiene and medical precautions have helped stop the spread of the disease. Severe cases require intensive supportive care, yet there are still few survivors.

Prevention - Transmission can be stopped by washing hands, wearing gloves and masks around infected patients, and avoiding reuse of needles. Suspected cases should be isolated. Since the primary method of transmitting the virus is through person-to-person contact with blood, secretion, or body fluids, anyone who has had close personal contact with patients should be kept under strict surveillance.

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