EBOLA HEMORRHAGIC FEVER

What is Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Electron micrograph of Ebola virus

Electron micrograph of Ebola virus

Ebola hemorrhagic fever (Ebola HF) is a severe, often-fatal disease in humans and nonhuman primates (monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees) that has appeared sporadically since its initial recognition in 1976.

The disease is caused by infection with Ebola virus, named after a river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) in Africa, where it was first recognized. The virus is one of two members of a family of RNA viruses called the Filoviridae. There are five identified subtypes of Ebola virus. Four of the five have caused disease in humans: Ebola-Zaire, Ebola-Sudan, Ebola-Ivory Coast and Ebola-Bundibugyo. The fifth, Ebola-Reston, has caused disease in nonhuman primates, but not in humans.

Where is Ebola virus found in nature?

The exact origin, locations, and natural habitat (known as the “natural reservoir”) of Ebola virus remain unknown. However, on the basis of available evidence and the nature of similar viruses, researchers believe that the virus is zoonotic (animal-borne), with 4 of the 5 subtypes occurring in an animal host native to Africa. A similar host, most likely in the Philippines, is probably associated with the Ebola-Reston subtype, which was isolated from infected cynomolgous monkeys that were imported to the United States and Italy from the Philippines. The virus is not known to be native to other continents, such as North America.

Where do cases of Ebola hemorrhagic fever occur?

Confirmed cases of Ebola HF have been reported in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Uganda, and the Republic of the Congo. No case of the disease in humans has ever been reported in the United States. Ebola-Reston virus caused severe illness and death in monkeys imported to research facilities in the United States and Italy from the Philippines; during these outbreaks, several research workers became infected with the virus, but did not become ill.

Ebola HF typically appears in sporadic outbreaks, usually spread within a health-care setting (a situation known as amplification). It is likely that sporadic, isolated cases occur as well, but go unrecognized. A table showing a chronological list of known cases and outbreaks is available.

How is Ebola virus spread?

Physicians wearing protective equipment

Treating patients with Ebola HF during outbreak of the disease in Kikwit, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1995.

Infections with Ebola virus are acute. There is no carrier state. Because the natural reservoir of the virus is unknown, the manner in which the virus first appears in a human at the start of an outbreak has not been determined. However, researchers have hypothesized that the first patient becomes infected through contact with an infected animal.

After the first case-patient in an outbreak setting is infected, the virus can be transmitted in several ways. People can be exposed to Ebola virus from direct contact with the blood and/or secretions of an infected person. Thus, the virus is often spread through families and friends because they come in close contact with such secretions when caring for infected persons. People can also be exposed to Ebola virus through contact with objects, such as needles, that have been contaminated with infected secretions.

Nosocomial transmission refers to the spread of a disease within a health-care setting, such as a clinic or hospital. It occurs frequently during Ebola HF outbreaks. It includes both types of transmission described above. In African health-care facilities, patients are often cared for without the use of a mask, gown, or gloves. Exposure to the virus has occurred when health care workers treated individuals with Ebola HF without wearing these types of protective clothing. In addition, when needles or syringes are used, they may not be of the disposable type, or may not have been sterilized, but only rinsed before reinsertion into multi-use vials of medicine. If needles or syringes become contaminated with virus and are then reused, numerous people can become infected.

What are the symptoms of Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

The incubation period for Ebola HF ranges from 2 to 21 days. The onset of illness is abrupt and is characterized by fever, headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, and weakness, followed by diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. A rash, red eyes, hiccups and internal and external bleeding may be seen in some patients.

Researchers do not understand why some people are able to recover from Ebola HF and others are not. However, it is known that patients who die usually have not developed a significant immune response to the virus at the time of death.

How is Ebola hemorrhagic fever clinically diagnosed?

Diagnosing Ebola HF in an individual who has been infected only a few days is difficult because early symptoms, such as red eyes and a skin rash, are nonspecific to the virus and are seen in other patients with diseases that occur much more frequently. However, if a person has the constellation of symptoms described above, and infection with Ebola virus is suspected, isolate the patient and notify local and state health departments and the CDC.

What laboratory tests are used to diagnose Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Antigen-capture enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) testing, IgM ELISA, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and virus isolation can be used to diagnose a case of Ebola HF within a few days of the onset of symptoms. Persons tested later in the course of the disease or after recovery can be tested for IgM and IgG antibodies; the disease can also be diagnosed retrospectively in deceased patients by using immunohistochemistry testing, virus isolation, or PCR.

How is Ebola hemorrhagic fever treated?

There is no standard treatment for Ebola HF. Patients receive supportive therapy. This consists of balancing the patient’s fluids and electrolytes, maintaining their oxygen status and blood pressure, and treating them for any complicating infections.

How is Ebola hemorrhagic fever prevented?

Ebola hemorrhagic fever prevention poster

Ebola HF prevention poster used in Kikwit outbreak.

The prevention of Ebola HF in Africa presents many challenges. Because the identity and location of the natural reservoir of Ebola virus are unknown, there are few established primary prevention measures.

If cases of the disease do appear, current social and economic conditions often favor the spread of an epidemic within health-care facilities. Therefore, health-care providers must be able to recognize a case of Ebola HF should one appear. They must also have the capability to perform diagnostic tests and be ready to employ practical viral hemorrhagic fever isolation precautions, or barrier nursing techniques. These techniques include the wearing of protective clothing, such as masks, gloves, gowns, and goggles; the use of infection-control measures, including complete equipment sterilization; and the isolation of Ebola HF patients from contact with unprotected persons. The aim of all of these techniques is to avoid any person’s contact with the blood or secretions of any patient. If a patient with Ebola HF dies, it is equally important that direct contact with the body of the deceased patient be prevented.

CDC has developed a set of tools to meet health-care facilities’ needs. In conjunction with the World Health Organization, CDC has developed practical, hospital-based guidelines, entitled Infection Control for Viral Haemorrhagic Fevers In the African Health Care Setting. The manual describes how to recognize cases of viral hemorrhagic fever, such as Ebola HF, and prevent further nosocomial transmission by using locally available materials and few financial resources. Similarly, a practical diagnostic test that uses tiny samples from patients’ skin has been developed to retrospectively diagnose Ebola HF in suspected case-patients who have died.

What challenges remain for the control and prevention of Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Scientists and researchers are faced with the challenges of developing additional diagnostic tools to assist in early diagnosis of Ebola HF and conducting ecological investigations of Ebola virus and its possible reservoir. In addition, one of the research goals is to monitor suspected areas to determine the incidence of the disease. More extensive knowledge of the natural reservoir of Ebola virus and how the virus is spread must be acquired to prevent future outbreaks effectively.

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