As the Ebola virus spreads in its worst outbreak in history, find out exactly what the virus is, how to spot the signs, and whether we should be as afraid as the media says we should be.
The outbreak, currently plaguing West Africa, has claimed more than 800 lives, according to the World Health Organization.
International medical organizations have described the spread as “out of control,” and fears are being raised as foreigners working in affected countries - Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone - are contracting the illness.
Infographic: Ebola epidemic
Classed by the WHO as a haemorrhagic fever, Ebola is said to have a fatality rate of up to 90%.
However, in the current outbreak, about 60% of cases have been fatal.
Ebola first appeared in 1976. Outbreaks primarily occur in remote villages in Central and West Africa, usually near tropical rainforests, according to the WHO.
Dr. Nishi Singh, a medical microbiologist-virologist at the United Arab Emirates’ Sharjah Women’s College, told Al Arabiya News: “It can get into humans by close contact with blood, secretions and handling organs of infected animals like primates, the deer family and even porcupines found in the rainforest.”
Ebola then spreads in the community through human-to-human transmission via bodily fluid and indirect contact with objects contaminated with such fluids.
“Even funeral ceremonies [for Ebola victims], where people come in contact with their bodies directly, have spread the disease,” Singh added.
Men who have recovered can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks after recovery.
Symptoms typically manifest within two to seven days after infection, although an incubation period of 21 days is not unheard of, said Singh.
Early signs include fever, headaches, joint and muscle pain, and lack of appetite.
Later symptoms include vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach pain, rash, and in some cases internal and external bleeding, often from the eyes, nose or mouth.
“The virus multiplies in the very cells of the body that form the frontline of the body's defense mechanism - the macrophages in the body tissues and mononuclear cells of the blood - using them as factories to make millions of their own copies,” Singh said.
Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, associate hospital epidemiologist at the Boston Medical Center, and director of infection control at Boston University’s National Emerging Infectious Disease Laboratories, told the Huffington Post that the virus then bursts out of those cells and produces a protein that “wreaks havoc.”
The protein, called ebolavirus glycoprotein, attaches to the cells on the inside of the blood vessels, and increases their permeability, causing blood to leak out.
The virus sets back the body’s ability to coagulate and thicken the blood, which accounts for the hemorrhagic symptoms.
Ebola evades the human body’s natural defenses. It blocks signals to white blood cells that tell the immune system to step in and attack.
Ebola can even piggyback immune cells, infecting them so as to travel throughout the body and infect vital organs such as the liver, kidney, spleen and brain.
Essentially, the virus shuts down the function of all the body’s cells , Singh said.
“There are many vaccines being tested, but none licensed for use in humans,” Singh said.
However, “if the patient is properly supported by intensive fluid and electrolytes therapy, allowing them enough time to recover by their own immunity taking over, they can survive this devastating illness.”
A person’s general health has a lot to do with whether he or she can overcome the virus.
It is difficult to recognize the early symptoms of the disease as they are non-specific, Singh said. “In an outbreak situation, however, one has to be on high alert.”
Patients exhibiting symptoms must be placed in isolation, “with all healthcare workers or their family members [who gave care] following blood and body fluid precautions. This means using gloves, gowns, masks and strict hand hygiene.”
Lab workers and medical professionals must also be forewarned as they are at high risk when performing tests on patients’ blood, added Singh.