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What is Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Ebola hemorrhagic fever (Ebola HF) is a severe, often-fatal disease in humans and non-human primates (monkeys 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), where it was first recognized.

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) and is normally maintained in an animal host that is native to the African continent.

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, and Uganda. 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.

How is Ebola virus spread?

Infection with Ebola virus in humans is incidental -- humans do not "carry" the virus. 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.

People can be exposed to Ebola virus from direct contact with the blood and/or secretions of an infected person. This is why the virus has often been spread through the families and friends of infected persons: in the course of feeding, holding, or otherwise caring for them, family members and friends would come into close contact with such secretions.

People can also be exposed to Ebola virus through contact with objects, such as needles, that have been contaminated with infected secretions. In health-care facilities, exposure to the virus has occurred when health care workers treated individuals with Ebola HF without wearing protective clothing. If needles or syringes become contaminated with virus and are then reused, numbers of people can become infected.

What are the symptoms of Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

The signs and symptoms of Ebola HF are not the same for all patients. The table below outlines symptoms of the disease, according to the frequency with which they have been reported in known cases.

Time Frame

Symptoms that occur in most Ebola patients

Within a few days of becoming infected with the virus high fever, headache, muscle aches, stomach pain, fatigue, diarrhea sore throat, hiccups, rash, red and itchy eyes, vomiting blood, bloody diarrhea

Within one week of becoming infected with the virus:
chest pain, shock, and death
blindness, bleeding

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 and itchy eyes and a skin rash, are nonspecific to the virus and are seen in other patients with diseases that occur much more frequently. If a person has the constellation of symptoms described in the table above, and infection with Ebola virus is suspected, several laboratory tests should be done promptly.

What laboratory tests are used to diagnose Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Antigen-capture enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) testing, IgG 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. Such tests are readily available at the Kenya Medical Research Institute (KEMRI)

How is Ebola hemorrhagic fever treated?

There is no standard treatment for Ebola HF. Currently, 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?

The prevention of Ebola HF 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 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.

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 the disease and ecological investigations of Ebola virus and the disease it causes.

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