I knew nothing about Ebola. After researching for this article, I am now less ignorant.
Ebola is foreign to both the American public and American docs, because until recently, it was never diagnosed in the United States. While it has no direct eye involvement, I still wanted to learn more about this often fatal disease and to lessen my ignorance when asked basic questions about Ebola from friends, family and patients.
I hope this will make your own Ebola discussions more meaningful.
The sickness is caused by a virus originally discovered along the Ebola River. There are 5 types of Ebola virus, only four of which cause infection in humans. A 5th type has been found in the Philippines (Reston), but does not infect humans.
The four different strains can cause a severe and often fatal type of hemorrhagic fever in humans though the natural hosts are likely to be fruit bats. The disease enters the human population by contact with the blood, secretions, organs and other bodily fluids of dead or sickened animals found in the wild; chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, etc.
Once the virus has entered the human population, the virus can spread from human to human.
Recent outbreaks have occurred in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia.
Problem: Viruses, like the common cold, cant’ be cured with antibiotics. There is no known antiviral drug which works against Ebola.
The virus can only be spread by direct contact with infected blood, secretions or bodily fluids from infected patients. In burial ceremonies in Africa, the virus is spread as mourners come into direct contact with the body/clothing of the infected deceased.
Viral infections are more easily spread via broken skin or mucous membranes (microscopic or larger cuts inside of your mouth, vagina). Even coming into contact with surfaces/saturated clothing can increase spread.
The virus is NOT spread through the air. Touching is the big problem.
Problem: Limiting the spread depends upon hygiene, containment and education.
The time between actual infection and the onset of symptoms is called the incubation period. The incubation period for Ebola is from 2 to 21 days, that is, you can contract the disease, but not have any symptoms for 2 to 21 days after the virus has entered your body.
Patients are not contagious (can’t spread the disease) if they are not showing symptoms.
Problem: Because of the varied incubation period, screening (by testing for fever) becomes even more difficult. You can be infected, be within the incubation period, and show no symptoms…such as fever.
Early Symptoms of Ebola
Problem: The symptoms of Ebola are not specific, that is, the initial symptoms are very similar to a having a cold or flu (okay, also malaria and typhoid). It makes screening so difficult because so many of the symptoms are nonspecific for Ebola and can be signs of so many other diseases.
Most patients die from complications of shock, or low blood pressure. “Shock” causes low blood flow/low blood pressure where insufficient blood reaches vital organs. This is a common way for many vital organs to shut down, e.g. kidneys.
Complications with clotting can occur secondary to the infection itself and/or liver malfunction. More specifically, the Ebola virus can cause clots to form inside the body (DIC). The clots can shut off blood supply to vital organs (causing multiple organ failure). By causing widespread clotting, the clotting proteins in the blood get depleted allowing internal and external hemorrhaging.
The liver can be directly affected by the virus. The liver is responsible for making the clotting proteins.
Blood pressure can drop from bleeding, but more commonly by direct infection of the adrenal glands. The adrenal glands are responsible for helping regulate blood pressure.
Problem: The disease is a systemic disease affecting multiple vital organs, the immune system and circulatory system. There are many ways patients can succumb.
There is no treatment for Ebola. Unlike other diseases caused by viruses (flu, Chicken Pox, Herpes), there is also no vaccine to prevent infection.
Several medications are in the developmental stage, but none is FDA approved.
“Supportive care” is the best treatment that can be offered in the absence of a specific treatment. Supportive care technically means that care is given to maintain quality of life in the face of terminal or serious illness.
In other words, supportive care means that medical care is given to specifically treat symptoms, for instance, if a patient is bleeding, “supportive” care is aimed at fixing the bleeding, if a patient has fever, care is given to bring down the fever.
Problem: Supportive care does not focus on treating the disease. Supportive care “supports” the patient during the worst phases of a disease or illness.
There are specific blood tests available to detect Ebola, but the testing make takes several days to complete and the testing can not be done until several days after symptoms have started.
Problem: There is no screening test. Basically testing can only confirm suspected cases of infection.
What Does This Mean?
I am not an authority of this disease. I do feel some responsibility as a doctor to have some personal knowledge of Ebola.
Share these facts with others, the only thing worse than a deadly disease is widespread hysteria and ignorance.