In a span of about six months, Ebola has spread from a remote forested corner of southern Guinea to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia, killing at least 1,013 people, including one person in Nigeria, who had flown to the Lagos airport from Liberia.
The outbreak in West Africa is claiming about 60 percent of those who are infected, although the virus, which causes severe internal and external bleeding, can have a fatality rate of up to 90 percent. Since Ebola was first recorded in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, it has killed more than 2,000 people. The current outbreak is the first in West Africa and the worst in history.
There is no vaccine and no known cure for Ebola, which initially induces fever, headaches, muscle pain and weakness. In its more acute phase, Ebola causes vomiting, diarrhea and external bleeding, symptoms that facilitate the rapid spread of the virus. Human-to-human contact, directly or via exposure to such secretions, are most often behind the transmission of the virus.
Treatment for people infected by Ebola remains limited to supportive therapy, which includes balancing the patient’s fluids and maintaining oxygen and blood pressure. But because early symptoms like headaches are common in other illnesses, Ebola is often initially misdiagnosed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Researchers are still trying to figure out why some infected with Ebola survive and some do not.
“However, it is known that patients who die usually have not developed a significant immune response to the virus at the time of death,” the CDC said.
Relatives can contract the virus when they are in contact with the victims while caring for them or preparing their bodies for burial, health officials say. The CDC recommends not embalming the bodies of Ebola victims.
“Remains should be wrapped in sealed leakproof material and cremated or buried promptly in a sealed casket.”
The struggle continues even for survivors of the disease. Recovery is slow because it takes months to regain weight and strength. Survivors may experience liver, eye or testicular inflammation, among other ailments. The virus remains in the body for weeks after recovery and can still be transmitted through semen.
Natural hosts of the virus are specific fruit bat species. Monkeys and apes have also carried the virus. Health officials warn against the handling of those animals and their raw meat.
The last major outbreak of the Ebola virus occurred 2012, killing 40 people in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo.