Let’s just get one thing straight:
YOU ARE EXTREMELY UNLIKELY TO CATCH EBOLA
The virus was first discovered in 1976, after an outbreak of a previously unknown disease in an isolated part of northwestern Congo.
Humans first contracted the Ebola virus by coming into close contact with, or eating, infected animals including chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines. Peter Piot was one of the first western doctors on the scene in the 1976 outbreak and here’s what he says about it:
“In general, Ebola is a disease of close contact with wildlife, of poverty and particularly of dysfunctional hospitals, which can become deadly centres of viral spread through unsafe injections and lack of basic hygiene.”
So unless you live in equatorial Africa in a country with little or no infrastructure and no access to modern health care, you are astronomically unlikely to catch and die of Ebola.
Glad we got that out of the way.
So why is everybody so worried about the latest outbreak?
This outbreak is the biggest we’ve seen since 1976. It’s also spread to quite a few countries and, because air travel is so common these days, there are fears that it might make it to western countries and KILL YOU AND YOUR CHILDREN. *ahem*.
As of 23 July at least 1,200 people were believed to have been infected – 672 of whom died.
Here’s the latest outbreak in context of all the other major outbreaks since 1976:
Ok, great. So what would happen if I did get Ebola?
Ebola starts with a flu-like illness which later develops into a high fever, severe headaches, muscle fatigue and chest pain. In about half of cases people can bleed from their mucous membranes, although its rarely heavy bleeding. You don’t bleed to death from Ebola, instead the disease shuts down your organs through fluid redistribution, low blood pressure and widespread clotting.
The disease has an incubation period of between two and 21 days: that’s the time it takes for symptoms to start developing after exposure to the virus. This makes it harder to spot infected individuals who may be travelling across borders.
So how do we avoid catching it?
Wash your hands. Basic hygiene stops the spread of the virus. Prof Paul Hunter told Tom Chivers in the Telegraph:
“Simply washing one’s hands destroys the long, fragile virus.”
Containment of the disease uses extremely simple techniques. Washing your hands isn’t the only effective method:
“In principle it is very easy to contain an Ebola outbreak: with gloves, hand-washing, safe injection practices, isolation of patients, safe and rapid discarding of the corpses of those killed by Ebola, and tracing of contacts and subsequent observation for a few weeks.”
How do you treat it, if there’s no cure?
Basic medical techniques are very effective at decreasing the fatality rate. Dr Tim Jagatic, a Canadian doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières, told Chivers that the death rate is reduced from 90% to 60% by “just doing basic medicine”.
As victims are normally severely dehydrated, they are treated with intravenous fluids, oral rehydration and are given solutions containing electrolytes.
How far will the virus spread?
Ebola spreads much less easily than lots of other diseases. It’s not an airborne disease: you have to physically touch an infected person — and then not wash your hands — to acquire the virus.
For this reason, Ebola’s “‘reproductive number’ – how many people are infected, on average, by each carrier – is very low: about one, compared to 12 for measles.”
Doctors and health workers are most at risk because they have to work in close contact with patients to help them get better.
It’s easier to identify than other diseases
“Later on, Ebola is, in a gruesome way, easier to manage than some other diseases – the fact that it is a haemorrhagic fever, that it has this terrible but distinctive bleeding in its late stages, means that by the time the patient is dead, you probably know the cause.”
That’s Dr Tim Jagatic again.
Why is the outbreak happening now?
Médicines Sans Frontières has called the present epidemic “out of control”. It began in Guinea in February this year, then spread to neighbouring Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In some cases, rural communities in Sierra Leone are actively resisting treatment and therefore helping the disease to spread.
A virologist from the University of Reading, told BBC Radio 5 live that people were “threatening or attacking doctors” and “liberating” sick relatives from quarantine units.
It has so far reached four African countries
The latest outbreak has spread to four countries so far — Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia, and Nigeria. Liberian government official Patrick Sawyer collapsed in Lagos, after landing there from Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, last week and died later that night.
This has raised fears that other passengers could have been infected, and could potentially take the disease outside the African continent.
The World Health Organisation has said that there’s been a surge in the number of Ebola cases, after weeks where it seemed to have dwindled, meaning there might be “undetected chains of transmission” within the community.
Are we at risk of infection?
There’s no reason to panic but it is possible that Ebola could find its way to the UK even if the chances are “very, very small” according to Dr Ben Neuman, a virologist at Reading University. Ebola has been present in the UK before after a laboratory accident in 1979.
Fundamentally this disease is one that predominantly affects very poor areas of the planet with poor or non-existent medical facilities.
Airlines have already stopped flying to the affect areas, governments have already closed borders and border staff know what to do.
So it’s really not worth worrying about whether you — yes, YOU — will get the disease. The people living in the areas of Africa affected by the disease don’t have this luxury.