Ebola is a virus that usually infects fruit bats but can pass to humans.People can become infected with the Ebola virus if they come into contact with the blood, body fluids or organs of an infected person. It therefore requires close contact and is not as infectious as airborne viruses such as flu. A person is infectious as long as their blood, urine, stools or secretions contains the virus.
Symptoms include a fever, headache, diarrhoea abdominal pains, joint and muscle pains, sore throat and severe weakness. Internal bleeding and bleeding from the ears nose and mouth occurs.
Ebola was thought to be fatal in about 90% of cases but seems to kill 50%-90% according to most recent figures. There is no treatment for Ebola. managing the condition involves supporting the patient to maintain hydration until the patient’s immune system overcomes the virus.
Deaths seem to have started to rise rapidly, almost exponentially.President Sirleaf of Liberia appealed for help in a letter to President Obama stating that infected people were being sent back to their communities and that their was not one single bed available in the whole of Liberia. President Obama has promised to build a 25 bed facility but that was a fraction of the 1,000 beds needed.
‘I’ve just projected about five weeks into the future and if current trends persist we would be seeing not hundreds of cases per week, but thousands of cases per week and that is terribly disturbing.’ – Dr Dye World Health Organisation
Generally the more deadly a virus is the less likely it is to spread. Successful viruses do not tend to kill their hosts;in this way their hosts move around and they spread more easily [although smallpox was an exception]. Ebola is an RNA virus like HIV, these have a high rate of mutations because their genome is so unstable and making a reliable vaccine is hard because they are constantly changing. It may be that Ebola is adapting to humans – hence the higher survival rate than expected. This would unfortunately mean that the present out-break could be a cause of a new pathogen which may persist.
Zmapp is an unlicensed treatment for Ebola that has been used in a few cases with seemingly some success. It is not a vaccine [although some newspapers have reported it as such]. It does not stimulate the immune system to produce antibodies like vaccines. It is a monoclonal antibody treatment for people already infected with Ebola. Supplies are very limited and we still are not sure whether it works.
In the UK we have good isolation facilities and it is very unlikely that it would be a problem here but one can see how Ebola is becoming a major problem in Africa’s slums.