Ebola: Facts Not Fiction

With the current Ebola outbreak featured on every news bulletin and in every newspaper, it’s understandable that it presents a hot topic of conversation, and that the general tone is one of anxiety. With a recent poll conducted by The Washington Post showing that 65% of Americans would consider themselves “concerned” about a widespread epidemic occurring in the US, and over 40% classing themselves as “worried” that they or a family member could catch the virus, it would appear that the public (in the US at least) are under-educated on the disease, or else suffering from a misconception. Indeed, a second survey conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health has shown that individuals with a higher level of education are less concerned about an epidemic or illness to their immediate friends and family, lending credence to the theory.

With this in mind, what exactly IS Ebola and what is the threat?

The Ebola virus is of the Filoviridae family and causes Ebola viral haemorrhagic fever, with symptoms typically occurring from 2-21 days after infection. The symptoms are fairly synonymous with flu and include a fever, sniffles and malaise for the first 2 weeks before progressing into nausea, vomiting and headaches and confusion. Once the disease reaches its peak, haemorrhagic manifestations can start to arise; petichae (small, purplish discolourations of the skin) and bleeding from puncture sites e.g. around IV lines, to name a couple. In serious cases internal haemorrhaging can occur as the blood vessels in the body break down.

This haemorrhaging is caused by cytokine release. The virus enters the body through mucosal surfaces or through breaks in the skin and lodges in the spleen, liver and lungs. Once inside the body, macrophages and other immune cells become targeted. These infected macrophages release cytokines (TNF-α, IL-6, IL-8 etc.) that cause the endothelial cells of the blood vessels to move around and reposition, leaving gaps for the red blood cells to leak from.

The virus only has one route of transmission. To contract the virus requires physical contact with infected individuals, bodily fluids, animals or objects. The virus is not airborne, and as such unless there has been interaction with infected persons there is no risk of infection to individuals.

Despite the public opinion of the threat from Ebola, a recent article for the New England Journal of Medicine has stated that

“although the regional threat of Ebola in West Africa looms large, the chance that the virus will establish a foothold in the United States or another high-resource country remains extremely small”

A reassuring statement and a concept that both the public (and reporters) must not lose sight of.

So, what do you think? Does more need to be done to educate the public? Do you blame the media? Vote in the poll below


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