Ebola Virus Outbreak Spreading Fast: 8 Things You Need to Know

ebola outbreakDespite the efforts of aid workers and humanitarian organizations, the deadly Ebola virus epidemic is raging through western Africa, worse than ever before. Doctors Without Borders director Bart Janssens said that the world "has never known such an epidemic." He added, "This epidemic is unprecedented, absolutely out of control, and the situation can only get worse." So far 670 people have died. There is no vaccine and no cure for the virus, and it's fatal to 9 out of 10 victims.

Two American aid workers and the lead Ebola doctor in Sierra Leon have been infected, and one of Liberia's top doctors died this weekend.

These headlines are deeply troubling. But should you be worried about the virus spreading to the U.S.? Here's everything we need to know about the Ebola virus outbreak so far.


1. Where's the outbreak? So far the Ebola outbreak is in three countries in West Africa that border each other: Guinea (where it was first detected in February), Sierra Leone, and Liberia. There has also been a case in Nigeria.

2. How do you become infected by the virus? According to the Centers for Disease Control, Ebola is spread either through direct contact with blood or secretions of an infected person or exposure to objects that have been in contact with secretions of an infected person. The CDC and World Health Organization say Ebola victims do not become contagious until they start showing symptoms.

3. What are the symptoms? Ebola infections usually manifest with flu-like symptoms including high fever and chills, followed by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, chest pain, cough, and headache. As the virus progresses, the symptoms get worse, much worse. My heart breaks for everyone suffering from this virus.

4. How is Ebola treated? Since there is no cure, doctors can only treat the symptoms and provide palliative care. This starts with pain relievers and fluids.

5. How did those two Americans become infected? Dr. Kent Brantly, father of two from Fort Worth, Texas, and hygienist and mother of two Nancy Writebol from Charlotte, North Carolina, were working for Christian organization Samaritan's Purse. Both are in serious but stable condition. Dr. Brantly isolated himself the moment he noticed he was carrying symptoms of the illness. You can learn more about both Americans at SamaritansPurse.com.

UPDATE: Brantly and Writebol will be evacuated from Liberia. At least one will be treated at Emory University hospital near CDC headquarters. Both will be treated in careful isolation. Writebol has been given an experimental serum. Brantly received a blood transfusion from a 14-year-old boy. Both are in stable but grave condition.

6. Is the outbreak going to spread to the U.S.? In a press conference today, CDC Director Dr. Tom Friedan said, "There is little risk to the American population." The CDC and other organizations are working to help keep the outbreak from reaching the U.S. But if a case does make it here, we have the capacity to isolate and treat a patient so the virus doesn't spread. The CDC has been sending advisories to hospitals and doctors to alert them to symptoms and how to treat any suspected infected people.

"We are taking steps to make sure Americans are taken care of here," Dr. Friedan said.

7. Why is the epidemic spreading so quickly? The outbreak started in urban areas, which are harder to contain. And doctors in Africa are facing fear and hostility from the community, which makes it harder to isolate and treat patients, Dr. Estrella Lasry, tropical medical adviser for Doctors Without Borders, told PBS News Hour's Gwen Ifill.

Dr. Friedan said today that the CDC is surging their response to the outbreak. "It's not going to be quick and it's not going to be easy but we know what to do." They are working with Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea governments on everything from tracking the outbreak to treating patients, working with security at airports, and setting in place systems that will halt the progress of future outbreaks.

8. What can I do to help? You can donate to Doctors Without Borders.

For more information, see the Centers for Disease Control facts page on the Ebola virus.

Do you feel relieved after getting the facts, or are you more worried about the Ebola outbreak now?


Image © Youssouf Bah/AP/Corbis

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