What is Ebola and how do people catch it?

The virus is spreading quickly in West Africa, but it has little chance of reaching the U.S.

A young girl in Lagos, Nigeria, washes her hands before entering her school. Such methods can help slow the spread of the Ebola virus. (Akintunde Akinleye/Reuters)

By Howard Bennett September 23 at 6:22 PM

Over the past month, you may have heard people talking about the Ebola virus. You may have also seen something about it on television, in the newspaper or on the Internet.

The reason for this is because an outbreak of Ebola started in West Africa in March. So far, the virus has infected nearly 6,000 people in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Senegal.

What is Ebola?

The Ebola virus was discovered in two African countries (Sudan and Congo, then known as Zaire) in 1976. The affected region in Congo was near the Ebola River, which is how the virus got its name.

Scientists believe the virus spread to humans who had contact with the blood or bodily fluids of infected animals, including bats, monkeys, chimpanzees, gorillas, forest antelope and porcupines.

There have been a number of Ebola outbreaks since 1976, but the current one is the largest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, says the current outbreak could reach 1.4 million cases by early next year.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include a sudden onset of fever, muscle aches, weakness, sore throat and headache. These symptoms are followed by vomiting, diarrhea and a rash. As the infection progresses, many people develop bleeding in the internal organs and outside openings of their body.

How do people catch Ebola?

Ebola spreads from person to person, but it is not as contagious as the flu or cold viruses. Influenza and colds are spread through airborne contact. This means the virus can travel from one person to another through the air. It usually occurs from a sneeze. Ebola can be spread among humans only through direct contact with the blood or bodily fluids (saliva, mucus, etc.) of an infected person. This can occur by touching the infected person or by touching objects (such as needles) the person has been in contact with.

Will the disease come to the United States?

A recent survey found that 1 in 4 Americans is worried that an outbreak of Ebola could happen in the United States. President Obama reassured the public at a recent news conference that the chances of this happening “are extremely low.” The same thing has been said by CDC experts.

Have any Americans been infected during this outbreak?

Three Americans working in Liberia have been infected with Ebola since July. Two of them (one a doctor) were aid workers helping people who were infected with the virus. One of the Americans died, but the two aid workers were flown to the CDC for treatment. They both survived.

An American doctor working in Sierra Leone also contracted the virus and is receiving treatment in Atlanta.

What is being done to stop the spread of Ebola?

To stop the spread of the disease, the World Health Organization and the CDC have been working with the governments of the affected countries to treat sick patients and contain the virus. (Ebola is more likely to spread in poor countries with limited access to clean water, proper sanitation and a well-developed health-care system.)

Patients with Ebola are isolated from other people. Doctors and other aid workers wear protective clothing to keep them from coming in contact with the bodily fluids of infected people.

In some countries, schools have been closed and air travel has been stopped to prevent anyone who might be in the early stages of the disease from spreading it to other countries.

Why are people so scared of the disease?

The most common reason American kids see the doctor is because they have a fever, runny nose or cough. The most common cause of these symptoms is a viral infection such as a cold.

Antibiotics don’t kill viruses, so kids are usually treated with fluids, rest and fever medicine. Fortunately, most of these infections are mild. Kids get better in three to seven days, when their immune system kills the virus.

Ebola is scary for two reasons.

First, as with most viruses, there are no medicines that can kill it. Infected people are treated with fever control, intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration and other measures. (The American aid workers who were flown back to the United States received an experimental drug to treat the infection.)

Second, the way Ebola attacks the body makes it much harder for the immune system to kill the virus. Many people who get Ebola die from it.

Is there a vaccine to prevent Ebola?

Although most kids don’t like shots, the reason you get them is to keep you healthy. When you get a vaccination, your immune system makes antibodies (chemicals) to protect you from catching the disease if you come in contact with the germ at a later time.

There is no vaccine to prevent Ebola at this time, but scientists are working hard to make one.

— Howard Bennett

Bennett is a Washington pediatrician. His Web site, www.howardjbennett.com, includes past KidsPost articles.


Author: `