The Threat of Ebola in Africa

Is Ebola in Africa a Real Threat?

Ebola virus disease (EVD) is a severe and often fatal illness. It is mainly spread through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of an infected person, and by handling objects that have been contaminated with these fluids.

The hardest-hit countries in the 2014-2016 EVD outbreak were emerging from years of civil conflict, which weakened their public health systems and caused distrust among communities. This has made it more difficult to control the outbreak.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a serious disease caused by a virus from the genus ebolavirus. It causes a deadly hemorrhagic fever with multiple organ failure and shock. The virus is highly contagious. It spreads through close contact with infected people, including healthcare workers. It can also be spread by eating bushmeat and through unsafe burial practices. Pregnant women who have had Ebola can pass the virus to their unborn babies.

The illness is most often spread when someone touches body fluids (like blood, sweat, tears, saliva, feces, vomit, breast milk, or semen) from a person who has the disease. People can also become infected by touching sheets, towels, clothes, medical supplies or personal objects that have been touched by a person who has the disease. Health care workers who treat patients with Ebola wear masks, gloves, gowns and special boots. The risk of infection is reduced when these safety measures are followed. A vaccine and antiviral medicines are being developed to prevent and treat the disease.

Symptoms of Ebola

Ebola virus spreads through unprotected contact with blood or body fluids (like urine, feces, saliva, sweat, vomit, breast milk, and semen) from a sick person or from surfaces or objects (like needles) that have been contaminated with these fluids. People can also get infected by eating raw meat from wild animals that carry ebolaviruses, such as bats, nonhuman primates, and antelope.

Symptoms of Ebola include fever, vomiting, diarrhea, weakness, and problems with how the body clots. Health care workers are trained to recognize the early signs of this illness and to help patients to avoid complications.

Nurses in these communities often speak the local languages and are able to provide factual information about the disease to their peers and community members. They can also support the implementation of public health interventions by helping to track contacts, perform laboratory testing, and safely administer treatments. Patients with Ebola need to stay under observation in a hospital until they are well.

Transmission of Ebola

The 2014–16 Ebola epidemic in West Africa was the largest outbreak in history. It highlighted that urban settings, densely populated slums and health care facilities are not immune to the spread of this disease, which can be transmitted through close contact with the blood or secretions of an infected person, their dead body or any surfaces or objects contaminated with those fluids.

Infections occur when people come into direct contact with the blood or other bodily fluids (like faeces, vomit or saliva) of a sick or dead person or with any objects soiled with those fluids, including gloves and gowns worn by healthcare workers who do not use proper infection prevention and control measures. Health care settings can also play a key role in the initial amplification of an outbreak by transmitting the disease through contact between infected patients and their caregivers if they do not follow proper procedures for isolation and barrier protection.

Ebola viruses are classified as a biosafety level 4 pathogen and require special containment and barrier protection for laboratory personnel and those who handle potentially infected patients or their bodies. In addition, the virus can be transmitted to others by exposure through needle-stick injuries.

Treatment of Ebola

A vaccine against Ebola is in development, and two monoclonal antibody treatments have been approved by the FDA: mAb114 (Ansuvimab; Inmazeb) and REGN-EB3 (Ebanga). They are both mixtures of antibodies that block the virus from entering cells. They were effective in the 2014–2016 outbreak, but have not been tested against other species of ebolavirus.

In addition to treatment, patients must receive supportive care such as fluids and electrolytes to prevent dehydration and help manage vomiting and diarrhea. They may also need blood transfusions or antibiotics for possible infection.

Health care workers in affected countries are working hard to contain the outbreaks. They are caring for patients with courage and resilience in challenging health care environments that put them at increased risk of contracting the disease themselves. They are also educating their communities about the virus. They are taking lessons from the successful containment of EVD in Uganda and adapting them to their countries’ situations. They are also helping to control the spread of the disease through careful surveillance and contact tracing, good laboratory services, and safe and dignified burials.

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