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Ebola FAQs

WebMD Medical Reference
Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks

Ebola is a deadly but rare disease that caused thousands of deaths in an outbreak that began in 2014 affecting the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

The outbreak of Ebola in West Africa was declared an international emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO). It was declared as 'over' in west Africa in January 2016, but officials warned that flare-ups were still possible.

What is Ebola?

Ebola's full name is Ebola virus disease or EVD, formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever. It was first recognised in 1976 and there have been outbreaks in several countries in Africa since then. For people catching Ebola, there is up to a 90% chance of death.

Ebola is thought to originate in fruit bats, but spreads between some animals and people. No specific treatment or vaccine has yet been licensed for Ebola.



How do you catch Ebola?

Humans get Ebola through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other body fluids of infected animals. These include chimps, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, antelope and porcupines.

Ebola spreads between people through body fluids, including blood and semen, and environmental surfaces contaminated with body fluids. Mourners have been known to catch Ebola during funeral ceremonies through touching the body.

Those at risk include health care workers trying to treat people with Ebola symptoms. There have been cases of health workers becoming infected despite using infection control suits and procedures.

What are the symptoms of Ebola?

Ebola symptoms come on quickly and include fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat.

Later symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, skin rash, kidney and liver problems and bleeding.

Ebola symptoms can start showing from two to 21 days after being infected.

Doctors may need to rule out other conditions with similar symptoms before diagnosing Ebola.

It is possible for Ebola symptoms to recur some time after a person is believed to be clear of the disease. This happened in the case of Scottish nurse Pauline Cafferkey. She contracted Ebola while working in West Africa, was treated in a special unit in the UK, declared free of Ebola and discharged. However, 10 months later, she was re-admitted to the high level isolation unit (HLIU) at London's Royal Free Hospital after the virus triggered a case of viral meningitis. She again made a full recovery.

How is Ebola treated?

There is no specific approved treatment or cure for Ebola, but doctors will try to help ease symptoms by giving fluids and electrolytes through a drip, nutrition and oxygen.

An experimental treatment called ZMapp has been developed and is grown in specially modified leaves of tobacco. This was used to treat aid workers infected with Ebola, but further research will be needed to check how effective it is before it is ready for wider use in the long-term.

Special dispensation was given by the World Health Organisation so that despite ZMapp still being at an experimental stage, it was ethical to use it during the West Africa outbreak, as long as consent was given, the risks were understood and data was collected to help assess the effectiveness of the serum.

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