In the past several months, international health authorities have been racing to contain what is being called the “largest and most complex” outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus since its discovery.1 While students in medical assistant programs have certainly been paying attention to the virus, scattered news sources continue to bring into focus isolated snapshots of Ebola’s trajectory, leaving much to know about the bigger picture. So, here is a breakdown of everything those in medical assistant education should know about Ebola:
What is Ebola?
In 1976, Ebola – its proper name is Ebola virus disease (EVD) – first appeared in two simultaneous outbreaks in Sudan and rural Democratic Republic of Congo.2 The second location was near the Ebola River, hence the virus’s name.
Fruit bats, a delicacy for some West Africans, are considered to be the virus’s natural host.
According to the World Health Organization, the Ebola virus family Filoviridae consists of three genera: Cuevavirus, Marburgvirus, and Ebolavirus. Five species have been identified: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Reston and Taï Forest. The first three – Bundibugyo Ebolavirus, Zaire Ebolavirus and Sudan Ebolavirus – have been associated with large outbreaks in Africa. The virus causing the 2014 West African outbreak belongs to the Zaire species.1
How does Ebola spread?
Ebola spreads through direct contact with either the bodily fluids of someone who’s actively sick with it, medical equipment that contains infected bodily fluids or infected animals.3 As a certified medical assistant likely knows, bodily fluid refers to blood, vomit, feces, urine, spit, sweat, semen and even tears.
It’s important to point out that EVD is not an airborne illness and infection is not as simple as touching a door knob contaminated with a sick patient’s germs. Furthermore, getting it on one’s skin is not necessarily a danger as long as one washes his or her hands and removes it from the skin. However, if one has a break in the skin such as a cut, scratch or blister, the virus can enter the bloodstream. It may also enter through the lining of the eye, nasal passages or the mouth, which is why medical professionals are being urged to avoid touching their faces with unwashed hands.3
What are the symptoms?
Once someone is infected, they can’t spread the disease until they start showing symptoms, as during the incubation period, there isn’t a sufficient amount of virus to transmit the disease to others until the illness is apparent. The tricky part about the virus is that infected patients might not feel symptoms right away; symptoms can take anywhere from two to 21 days to appear after exposure. Ebola grows within the body’s cells, multiplying until the body builds up a high level of the virus.
Symptoms include fever, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, and muscle pain. In its later stages, unexplained bleeding could occur, too.3
How is Ebola treated?
There are no proven treatments or licensed vaccines for EVD, but doctors can treat Ebola patients with some effectiveness by providing rehydration and addressing specific symptoms, which improves the chances of survival. Infected patients are isolated to prevent further spreading of the disease.
Scientists continue to develop experimental vaccines and a range of blood, immunological and drug therapies are under development. In fact, two potential vaccine candidates are currently undergoing evaluation.
The average EVD fatality rate is around 50 percent, though it may reach up to 90 percent in underdeveloped countries.2 Importantly, not everyone who is infected with the virus die.
Outbreak in West Africa
Ebola first hit West Africa in March 2014 and has since become the largest outbreak of the virus’s history.3 According to the World Health Organization, the most severely affected countries include Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia due to their very weak health systems and lack of human and infrastructural resources.
The CDC has activated its Emergency Operations Center to help coordinate technical assistance, and deployed several teams of public health experts to the West Africa region to expand current response activities.
As of Oct. 3, about 3,330 people have died from Ebola.3
Ebola in the US
Thomas Eric Duncan, a patient treated at a Dallas hospital, was the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. He left Liberia on Sept. 19 and arrived in the U.S. the next day, the CDC reported. Four or five days later, Duncan was hospitalized and isolated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.4
The state of Texas said that as many as 100 people might have come into contact with Duncan, and U.S. health officials are tracking them down and monitoring symptoms, seeking to calm public fear of a wider outbreak.
Despite the severity of the outbreak in West Africa, U.S. health officials said Americans should not be concerned. The director of the CDC Tom Frieden said Oct. 2 that he “remains confident” that U.S. can contain the spread of the Ebola virus in the U.S.
“We are stopping Ebola in its tracks in this country,” Tom Frieden said in a press release.5 “We can do that because of two things: strong infection control that stops the spread of Ebola in health care; and strong core public health functions to trace contacts, track contacts, isolate them if they have any symptoms and stop the chain of transmission. I am certain we will control this.”
1Ebola virus disease. (2014, September 1). Retrieved October 3, 2014, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/
2News, C. (2014, October 3). Ebola outbreak: Here’s what you need to know. Retrieved October 3, 2014, from http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/ebola-outbreak-here-s-what-you-need-to-know-1.2786511
32014 Ebola Outbreak in West Africa. (2014, October 1). Retrieved October 3, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/2014-west-africa/index.html
4Winter, T., Flynn, M., & Dembo, R. (2014, October 2). Timeline: How Ebola Made Its Way to the U.S. – NBC News. Retrieved October 3, 2014, from http://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/ebola-virus-outbreak/timeline-how-ebola-made-its-way-u-s-n216831
5CDC Team Assisting Ebola Response in Dallas, Texas Press Release. (2014, October 1). Retrieved October 3, 2014, from http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2014/p1001-response-in-dallas.html