Friday, 4 April 2014

The Ebola Virus explained

 In light of the recent outbreak in West Africa, DEPM's Associate Professor Allen Cheng breaks down what the Ebola Virus is, and how it affects humans who contract it.

The article was originally published in The Conversation where the full piece can be found.

A family of viruses

The Ebola virus itself was first discovered in 1976, but it’s one of a group of viruses that cause a similar syndrome known as viral hemorrhagic fevers.
While Ebola virus is mainly found in Central Africa (the current outbreak in Guinea is far west of previous outbreaks), other viruses that cause viral haemorrhagic fever are distributed more widely – Lassa fever (West Africa), hantavirus (east Asia), Junin (Argentina), Crimean-Congo (mainly Central Asia and eastern Europe). Dengue virus, commonly found across the tropics (particularly Asia), can, on rare occasions, cause a similar syndrome.
There are five strains of Ebola and they vary in terms of how infective and lethal they are. The most significant outbreaks are associated with the Sudan and Zaire strains; the latter is implicated in this outbreak.

Some facts about Ebola from the US Centers for Disease Control. KRT/AAP

How it spreads

The good news, if there is any, is that spread of the virus is controllable, and it’s probably not as infectious as you might think from watching films about virus outbreaks.

Unlike SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which spread quickly from contact with droplets and contamination of the environment and was difficult to control even in developed countries such as Singapore and Canada, Ebola requires contact with infected body fluids. This means it only generally spreads to close contacts of infected people – mainly family members, health-care workers and people involved with preparing bodies for burial.


Containing the outbreak

And there’s a bigger problem still; Ebola infections tend to occur in places where the health infrastructure is extremely limited.

I was once told that no patient with Ebola had ever had a chest X-ray. Not because it wasn’t relevant (in some haemorrhagic fevers, leakage of fluid into the lungs can be an important finding) but because infections always occur in places without the capacity to do a chest X-ray, one of the most basic of medical tests.

That lack of capacity tends to affect all efforts to control disease outbreaks. Guinea, where the current outbreak is occurring, is also reportedly battling measles, cholera and meningitis. But all is not lost. The medical aid organisation, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), is airlifting in teams and resources to control this Ebola outbreak. It has expertise in these areas through involvement with previous such emergencies.

The organisation has noted that this outbreak poses particular difficulties as cases are being recognised in multiple places in the region, which are also far apart, complicating efforts to control the epidemic. And because the virus' incubation period can range up to three weeks, we won’t know how successful the current control measures are doing for a while.

Let’s hope current local and international efforts to control the spread of Ebola will stop more people getting infected.

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