The Threat of Ebola: Are You Prepared for a Pandemic?

By Kurina Baksh
Last updated: January 4, 2017
Key Takeaways

The 2014 Ebola outbreak is one of the largest disease outbreaks in history. On August 8th 2014, the World Health Organisation officially declared the situation, “public health emergency of international concern.”

In early 2014, a deadly new strain of the Ebola virus emerged in West Africa. As such, there have been widespread outbreaks across the countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Thus far, the World Health Organization has reported 467 deaths due to the Ebola virus, and further identified over 1,300 cases. Therefore, it is important that the awareness and knowledge of the Ebola virus reaches as many people as possible in order to control the spread of this deadly disease.


The History of Ebola

The Ebola virus first emerged in 1976 in the countries of the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan, killing approximately 2,500 people. The virus is said to have been named after a river near the village of Yambuku, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it was first discovered. Prior to 2014, Ebola outbreaks were limited to Central Africa. Additionally, the process by which the Ebola disease first infected humans is currently unknown.

What Is Ebola?

The Ebola disease is also formally known as Ebola Haemorrhagic Fever. It is caused by infection with a virus of the family Filoviridea, genus Ebolavirus. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are five identified subspecies of Ebolavirus, of which four have caused disease in humans. These are:

  • Ebola virus (Zaire ebolavirus)
  • Sudan virus (Sudan ebolavirus)
  • Taï Forest virus (Taï Forest ebolavirus, formerly Côte d’Ivoire ebolavirus)
  • Bundibugyo virus (Bundibugyo ebolavirus)

The fifth subspecies is the Reston virus (Reston ebolavirus). It is known to cause disease in non-human primates only.

How Is the Ebola Virus Transmitted?

The Ebola virus was once thought to have originated from gorillas, but scientists have since debunked this theory. However, researchers now believe that the Ebola virus is animal-borne with bats being the most likely reservoir. As a result, humans can become infected by eating foods that bats have salivated or defecated on. To support this new theory, evidence has shown that the 2014 Ebola outbreak started in a village where bat hunting was common.

In addition to contact with animals, the Ebola virus can be spread in several other ways. The virus can be spread through direct contact, either through broken skin or mucous membranes with:

  • An infected person's blood or bodily fluids, such as urine, saliva, feces, vomit and semen
  • Objects like needles that have been contaminated with infected body fluids

Note that the Ebola virus is NOT transmitted through:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Food

Signs and Symptoms of the Ebola Disease

When infection of the Ebola virus occurs, the symptoms begin abruptly, usually appearing anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure. The signs and symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhea
  • Fever greater than 38.6°C or 101.5°F
  • Lack of appetite
  • Muscle pain
  • Severe headache
  • Weakness
  • Vomiting

How Is the Ebola Virus Diagnosed?

Early diagnosis of the Ebola disease is difficult since the early symptoms are non-specific to the Ebola virus. However, the following tests can be carried out on a sample of an individual’s blood to confirm the presence of an Ebola viral infection:

  • Antigen-capture enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) testing
  • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR)
  • IgM and IgG antibodies
  • Virus isolation

How Can the Ebola Disease Be Treated?

At present, the standard treatment for the Ebola disease is limited to supported therapy as more advanced treatments for the Ebola virus are still in experimental stages. Supportive therapy consists of:

  1. Balancing the patient’s fluids and electrolytes
  2. Maintaining the patient's oxygen status and blood pressure
  3. Treating the patient for any complicating infections

What Can You Do to Stay Safe?

Preventing the Ebola disease is currently a challenge due to the fact that the manner in which humans become infected remains unknown. Additionally, since the Ebola virus can only be spread through an infected person’s bodily fluids, healthcare workers are most at risk. As such, the following precautions should be undertaken:

  • Wear the appropriate protective clothing at all times, such as masks, gloves, gowns and goggles.
  • Utilize infection-control measures, such as complete equipment sterilization and routine use of disinfectant
  • Isolate Ebola patients from contact with unprotected and uninfected persons

Are You Safe From a Pandemic?

Many people blame medical doctors for the spread of Ebola. Therefore, the challenge in West Africa is the lack of trust that exists between modern medical professionals and the local population. As a consequence of this mistrust, those suffering from the Ebola disease are least likely to come forward to seek medical care. This then makes it difficult to identify and quarantine infected individuals

So, are you safe from pandemic? Well, unless you reside in West Africa or are planning a trip in the near future, the chances of you becoming infected with the Ebola virus are very low. Furthermore, researchers have stated that since the Ebola virus is not a respiratory virus, it does not have the potential to become an epidemic like SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome). Unfortunately, this statement has given rise to a few controversies.

The bottom line? Prevention is always better than a cure.

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Written by Kurina Baksh

Kurina Baksh

Kurina Baksh is a Health, Safety and Environment Professional from Trinidad and Tobago. As a recent graduate in the field, she is trained to analyze and advise on a wide range of issues related to her area of expertise. Currently, she is an independent consultant who develops public outreach and education programmes for an international clientele. She strongly believes that increasing public outreach and education can promote hazard awareness and ultimately save lives.

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