What is Ebola?
Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic
fever, is described by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “a
severe, often fatal illness in humans.”
It first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks – in Nzara,
Sudan; and in Yambuku, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The
latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the
disease takes its name.
It is mainly found in tropical Central and West Africa, and can have
a 90 per cent mortality rate – although it is now at about 60 per
How is it transmitted?
The virus is known to live in fruit bats, and normally affects people
living in or near tropical rainforests.
It is introduced into the human population through close contact
with the sweat, blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of
infected animals such as chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats,
monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines found ill or dead or in the
The virus then spreads in the community through human-to-
human transmission, with infection resulting from direct contact
(through broken skin or mucous membranes) and indirect contact
with environments contaminated with such fluids.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) says the disease is not
contagious until a person begins to show symptoms.
A big problem in West Africa is that burial ceremonies, in which
mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased
person, can increase the spread of the disease because a person
can transmit the virus even after death.
Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the
virus through their semen for up to seven weeks after recovery
Ebola kills indiscriminately, but women are particularly badly
affected . Because it is transmitted through bodily fluids, it spreads
easily to people caring for the sick. In West Africa, it is generally
women that prepare dead bodies for funeral and look after ailing
members of their communities.
What does it do to your body?
Symptoms begin with fever, muscle pain and a sore throat, then
rapidly escalate to vomiting, diarrhoea and internal and external
The incubation period, that is, the time interval from infection with
the virus to onset of symptoms, is from two to 21 days.
Health workers are at serious risk of contracting the disease – two
American doctors have already contracted it, and a Liberian medic
has died. Sierra Leone announced on July 23 Sheik Umar Khan,
the doctor leading the fight against Ebola in the country, had
himself contracted the disease following the deaths of several
nurses at the treatment centre where he works.
Early treatment improves a patient’s chances of survival.
How is it treated?
There is no vaccine or cure, and testing to confirm the virus must
be done with the highest level of biohazard protection.
Severely ill patients require intensive supportive. Patients are
frequently dehydrated and require oral rehydration with solutions
containing electrolytes or intravenous fluids.
A significant problem with the current outbreak is families lose
faith in Western medicine, which cannot yet cure the patients.
They then take them home to traditional village healers, which
often leads the disease to spread.
Where have there been outbreaks before?
The WHO is calling this the largest outbreak ever recorded of the
But there have been sporadic outbreaks before – mainluy in
Uganda, the DRC, Sudan and Gabon.
The worst previous outbreak, in 2000 in Uganda, saw 425 people
infected, of which just over half died.
Why UK is scared?
There has been a previous case in the UK, when in 1976 someone
was accidentally infected in a laboratory, but survived.
And up until a few weeks ago, the cases were mainly in remote
areas affecting rural workers unlikely to take flights and spread the
However, concern is now growing that this large outbreak is
spreading beyond the rural areas of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra
Leone – where it has been concentrated so far – and into the
capital cities and beyond.
A Liberian man died in Nigeria on July 24, having flown in to
Lagos after a stopover in Togo. That the man died in Africa’s
largest city has deeply worried authorities.
There have been no Ebola cases from people returning to the UK
Guinea is not a big tourist destination with only around 2,600
visits a year from the UK, mostly on business – but 117,000
Britons visit Nigeria each year.
Travellers who may have been exposed to the Ebola virus in West
Africa should seek urgent medical attention immediately if
symptoms develop within 21 days of coming home. UK doctors
who suspect Ebola can get expert advice from the Imported Fever
Public Health England says the risk of a traveller contracting Ebola
is very low without direct contact with the blood or body fluids of
an infected person or animal