The facts of Ebola: how to recognize and prevent infection

Rosemary Lausier, Crier Staff

Over the recent months, American citizens have found themselves in a state of panic. There have been confirmed cases of the deadly disease Ebola, a virus originating in West Africa.

In the United States so far, patients have been diagnosed with the virus in Texas, killing one man and infecting two nurses. More recently, a man has been diagnosed in New York City and has since been quarantined.

Although the disease causes much anxiety, it is important to be aware of the facts concerning the disease: knowing how it’s transmitted, what the symptoms are, and the precautions to take to prevent transmission to others.

Ebola, formerly known as Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever, was first discovered in 1976 in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Since then, there have been multiple outbreaks resulting in thousands of deaths across Africa. However, the current outbreak in West Africa has been the largest yet. There have been more cases and deaths than all the other outbreaks combined.

As of October 19th, there have been 9,936 confirmed cases in West Africa resulting in 4,877 total deaths. The current outbreak started in Guinea, and then spread to Sierra Leone and Liberia. Nigeria and Senegal both had single cases of the virus which have since been eradicated. These countries have weak health systems, poor sanitation, and closed living conditions.

These circumstances raise the risk for contracting the disease in these poorer populations. In these areas, the virus is easily spread during burial ceremonies because citizens are in close contact with those who have died from the virus.

The disease is believed to have first been transmitted from fruit bats. It then spread to other animals such as chimps, gorillas, monkeys, and forest antelope. Humans contract the disease through close contact with secretions and other bodily fluids from the infected animals or from raw meat. However, humans spread it to each other via direct contact.

The virus can enter the body through broken skin or other membranes after contact with bodily fluids or contaminated surfaces. The virus is extremely infectious because contact with a small amount can easily cause illness. However, according to CNN, the virus isn’t very contagious because it is not an airborne disease. Also, Ebola becomes un-transmittable once someone becomes asymptomatic or has recovered from the disease.

The symptoms for Ebola can vary. The incubation period (infection to onset symptoms) can be 2 to 21 days. However, humans are not infectious until they develop symptoms. Symptoms can include fever, fatigue, muscle pain, headache, and sore throat.

However, as the patient’s conditions worsen, these symptoms can be followed by vomiting, diarrhea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and both internal and external bleeding. These symptoms present themselves as a patient is nearing death.

Since there is currently no FDA approved vaccine available for Ebola, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) provides some tips for individuals traveling in or out of infectious areas. An important step to take, and also helpful in preventing the spread of other illnesses, is practicing careful hygiene.

This includes washing hands with soap or hand sanitizer thoroughly and avoiding contact with bodily fluids and contaminated surfaces.

Especially in West Africa, one should avoid burial sites and hospitals where one can come in contact with an infected body. Also, one needs to avoid contact with bats and non-human primates since they have a high possibility of carrying the disease.

Lastly, and also a very imperative step, is to monitor your health for 21 days after contact with a potentially infected person or a stay in an infected area. If one starts experiencing symptoms, then he should seek medical care immediately. This could help one’s chances of survival and prevent the spread of the virus to others.

Unfortunately, there have been confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States. In late September, Thomas Eric Duncan traveled from West Africa to Dallas, Texas experiencing symptoms 4 to 5 days after his arrival. He sought medical care at Texas Presbyterian Hospital where he was initially cleared, but then later admitted after risking infection to others. He died on October 8th from his symptoms.

Two of the nurses who treated Duncan contracted the virus as well. The first nurse, Nina Pham, reported symptoms on October 10th and tested positive for Ebola. She was treated at the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, Maryland.

A second nurse who cared for Duncan, Amber Vinson, flew to Ohio to visit family only to contract symptoms after arrival. She was cleared to fly back to Dallas even though she was already symptomatic, increasing the risk of spreading the disease to others. She was treated at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Both were said to have been in stable condition and have since recovered.

There has been much criticism and debate over whether the two nurses ignored safety precautions. However, according to CNN, a nurses union from the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital have come out with allegations claiming that the hospital itself wasn’t enacting proper precautions, ultimately leading to the nurses’ illnesses. These nurses claim that Duncan wasn’t isolated immediately, their gear left their neck exposed, hazardous waste was left uncollected, and there was a lack of training.

According to Jean Ross, co-president of National Nurses United stated, “They [were] just telling health-care workers to look up the proper precautions”. The hospital denies these claims. However, CDC director Dr. Tom Freiden admits that there was a “breach in protocol”.

Since the incident, the CDC has had to re-examine safety precautions for hospital staffs since there wasn’t a steady plan for how to deal with the epidemic. Fortunately all the people that Thomas Duncan came in contact with have been cleared from any infections. It still holds true that only contact with bodily fluids and not casual contact spreads the disease.

On October 23rd, Doctor Craig Spencer was diagnosed with Ebola, becoming New York City’s first diagnosed case. After returning from Guinea where he was treating patients, Spencer self-monitored himself until his symptoms developed.

After contracting a 103 degree temperature, he was transported to Bellevue Hospital Center and placed in an isolation unit. It is unclear who Spencer came in contact with or why he waited so long to seek medical attention. However, three people, his fiancée and two friends, are under quarantine and are having their health monitored.

Hopefully over the next few weeks, the rate of infection will decrease in the United States. Measures have already been taken to help fight the disease. President Obama appointed an Ebola Czar, Ron Klain, to coordinate agency efforts to combat the disease. Presently, there is a travel ban allowing only five airports, Kennedy International in New York, Newark Liberty International, Washington Dulles International, O’Hare International in Chicago, and Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, that will allow people to travel from Africa.

New York and New Jersey are putting any health workers returning from Africa in quarantine until the incubation period passes. The President is considering following suit for the entire country. The government and multiple health agencies are tirelessly working to help contain the disease and develop a vaccination for those not yet affected. If these efforts, along with increased awareness of the disease are taken seriously, then it will hopefully help prevent further spread and the eventual eradication of this disease.