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How Dangerous Is the Ebola Virus?

By… Diane Wedner.

The latest news about the Ebola virus, an often fatal infectious disease, is pretty scary – especially now that at least one patient is being treated in the United States. So what is this relatively new health threat, and do you really need to be worried about it? Read on for the answers…

An outbreak of the Ebola virus has a lot of people scared.

The disease has infected more than 1,600 people in West Africa and killed more than 880, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). And now that two Americans with the disease have returned to the U.S. for treatment, some people are worried that it could spread closer to home.

Ebola is a form of hemorrhagic fever, meaning it can cause high temperatures and internal bleeding. It has a fatality rate of at least 60%, the WHO says.

The good news for U.S. residents? The risk of an outbreak in this country is almost nil, according to infectious disease experts.“It’s very, very low – in fact, there’s never been a case in the U.S.,” says Jeffrey D. Klausner, M.D., professor of medicine and public health at UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine in Los Angeles.

So how does this disease spread, and why is it so dangerous in some parts of the world? Lifescript checked in with top disease specialists and government agencies for answers to your most pressing questions.

When was Ebola discovered?
The virus was first identified during a 1976 epidemic in what’s now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But researchers believe there may have been earlier outbreaks.

Where did this most recent outbreak erupt?
It was first reported in March 2014 in the West African country of Guinea. The disease quickly crossed borders into Liberia and Sierra Leone, overwhelming health systems there, according to the CDC.How do humans first get infected?
Researchers believe outbreaks occur when someone comes in contact with an infected animal – most likely a bat. People may contract the illness by touching bat droppings or drool and then touching their eyes, mouth or nose. It also can enter the bloodstream through an open cut.

Other animals, including gorillas and chimpanzees, can also have the virus and transmit it to humans who handle them.

How is the virus transmitted from person to person?
People are exposed through the blood or secretions of someone who’s infected, the CDC says. This can happen through contact with a contaminated needle, or if an infected person’s blood or vomit gets in the healthy person’s eyes, nose or mouth.

Also, infected men can transmit the virus sexually for as long as 7 weeks after recovery from the illness, the World Health Organization says.

So far, most of the Ebola cases have occurred in people who contracted the disease while caring for sick relatives.Doctors and other health workers are also at risk if they don’t decontaminate their protective gear correctly, says Rekha Murthy, M.D., medical director of the Hospital Epidemiology Department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

Who’s at greatest risk of contracting the disease after exposure?
Kids under age 4, especially infants, are most susceptible, Dr. Klausner says. Others at greater risk include those with suppressed immune systems, such as HIV/AIDS patients, those with chronic health conditions such as cancer, and malnourished people. Healthy people also can contract it.

What are the symptoms?
According to the CDC, they include:
Joint and muscle aches
Stomach pain
Lack of appetite
Some patients also experience:
A rash
Red eyes
Sore throat
Chest pain
Difficulty breathing
Difficulty swallowing
Bleeding inside and outside of the body

Do those symptoms kick in right away?
Symptoms may show up any time between 2 and 21 days after exposure to the virus, but they most often occur within 8 to 10 days, the CDC says.

Some of the symptoms sound like those of the flu. How can doctors tell it’s not influenza?
At first, it may feel similar to the flu – patients get a fever, feel fatigued, are weak and have aching muscles, Dr. Klausner explains. That may happen before symptoms such as low blood pressure, coughing up blood and internal bleeding appear.

People in the affected areas who have the initial symptoms should get to a health clinic for testing right away, the CDC says.How is Ebola treated?
In modern medical facilities, patients are given intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration from fever, diarrhea and vomiting, Dr. Klausner says. If needed, they’re given medications to elevate their blood pressure. Those who are losing blood get transfusions. If they have trouble breathing, they receive oxygen or are put on an assisted-breathing machine.

These treatments may not be available in rural parts of West Africa where the disease has spread, however.

“Those who don’t have access to basic therapies or intensive care won’t have good outcomes,” Dr. Klausner says.

Why do some people recover while others don’t?
No one knows for sure. But those who die usually haven’t developed a good immune response to tackle the virus.

“Some people can mount an antibody response and some can’t,” Dr. Murthy explains. “It’s not clear why.”Is there a cure for Ebola?
No cure is currently available.

An experimental drug called ZMapp, made with antibodies from mice exposed to fragments of the virus, is showing some promise. It was given to the two American health-care workers who contracted Ebola in Liberia, and it may have saved their lives, according to news reports.

But that was on an emergency basis – ZMapp has never been tested on humans and will have to go through a long process of clinical trials to be proved safe and effective.

Another experimental drug, Tekmira, is undergoing trials, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stopped a study in July because of safety concerns.

Is there a vaccine to prevent the virus?
Not yet. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health are planning human trials of an experimental vaccine, which was previously tested on monkeys, in September. It won’t reach field workers for at least a year, the CDC reports.The two American aid workers who contracted the disease are being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. What’s preventing them from setting off an outbreak in the U.S.?
Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who were working with a missionary aid group called Samaritan’s Purse, were accompanied by personnel wearing protective clothing. And the hospital has a containment unit for dangerous infectious diseases.

“The staff is practicing stringent precautionary techniques,” Dr. Murthy says.

So there’s virtually no chance of an outbreak?
That’s right.

“Catching Ebola requires extremely close contact with infectious body fluids,” Dr. Klausner says. “It’s not an airborne infection, and it’s not carried by a tick or mosquito.”

How is the outbreak being contained in Africa?
The WHO plans to provide $100 million for additional medical experts and supplies, and the CDC is sending 50 more experts to the region in the next few weeks. These workers will improve laboratory operations in an attempt to speed up Ebola testing.

The CDC also is helping with airport screenings to prevent sick people from traveling out of the affected areas.

But even in the best-case scenario, it will take least 3-6 months to stop further spread of the disease, warns CDC Director Thomas R. Frieden, M.D.Would it be dangerous to travel to the affected areas?
The CDC is advising Americans to avoid all nonessential travel to the countries affected by the outbreak. The agency has issued a Level 3 travel warning, which is reserved for “grave situations.”

Do health experts believe more outbreaks will happen?
“As humans build houses in environments where animals live, we’re exposed to viruses we’ve never encountered before – so medical emergencies [due to emerging diseases] will continue to happen,” Dr. Klausner says. “But Ebola is a relatively rare occurrence.”