CONAKRY (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ebola is suspected to have killed more than 70 people in Guinea in the last two months – the first fatal outbreak of the virus in West Africa. Below are some facts on one of the world’s most lethal infectious diseases.
- Scientists first identified Ebola following an outbreak in 1976 in Sudan and Zaire, now known as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Samples sent to Belgium were initially screened for Yellow Fever and Marburg, but the results came back negative. The new virus was named Ebola after the river in Zaire near where the outbreak was recorded.
- Ebola, a haemorrhagic fever, has one of the highest case fatality rates in the world, with some strains killing 90 percent of victims as in an outbreak in DRC in 2003. There are five official strains: Zaire, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, Reston and Bundibugyo. Ebola has killed more than 1,500 people in Africa, with the Zaire strain being responsible for the majority of deaths.
- Ebola is a zoonotic virus, meaning it spreads from animals to humans. Research suggests Ebola is carried by fruit bats which infect other forest animals like monkeys and chimpanzees. It spreads to humans through the handling or eating of infected animals, including bats. Any contact with infected blood, organs, secretions or faeces can lead to infection.
- The virus spreads between humans through contact. Health workers are often infected while caring for patients. Bodies can remain contagious for up to 60 days. Traditional funerals, where mourners wash bodies by hand, can help spread the disease. It is also spread through fomites, which are objects like syringes, clothing or bedding that can carry infections.
- The Ebola virus has an incubation period between two and 21 days. Symptoms initially include fever, headaches, muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhoea. The virus attacks the body’s blood vessels causing haemorrhages and blood clots that lead to internal and external bleeding. Victims die from circulatory shock and organ failure.
- The disease is contained through isolation along with strict hygiene and sanitation. Scientists are working on developing a vaccine, which could also act as a cure if given fast enough after infection.