The World Health Organization says hundreds have died from Ebola, making the latest outbreak in West Africa the largest in history. In affected countries, health workers and clinics have come under attack from frightened residents who mistakenly blame foreign medical workers for bringing the virus to remote communities. Family members also have removed sick Ebola patients from hospitals, and panic is spreading to other countries since Nigerian health officials reported that a Liberian man sick with the disease had travelled to Togo and then Nigeria before dying.
What is Ebola virus? A severe, often fatal, illness that first appeared in 1976, with a death rate of up to 90 per cent, that affects humans and non-human primates. The origin of the virus is unknown, but based on available evidence fruit bats are considered the likely host of the virus. It is introduced into humans through close contact with the bodily fluids of infected animals. Person-to-person infection can occur through direct contact with an ill person's blood, other bodily fluids or secretions including stool, vomit, urine, saliva and semen.
What are the symptoms of Ebola? It can look a lot like other diseases. Early symptoms of an Ebola infection include fever, headache, muscle aches and sore throat, so it can be difficult to distinguish between Ebola and the symptoms of malaria, typhoid fever or cholera. Only in later stages do people with Ebola begin bleeding both internally and externally, often through the nose and ears.
What is the treatment? Some drug therapies are being tested, but there is currently no specific treatment to cure the disease. Nor is there a licensed vaccine. But some people are surviving. Health officials in the hard-hit countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone say the current death rate is about 70 per cent. Those who fared best sought immediate medical attention and got supportive care to prevent dehydration.
How do health workers protect themselves from the high risk of caring for sick patients? They should use personal protection equipment (gowns, gloves, masks and goggles or face shields); never reuse this equipment and clothing without properly disinfecting them; change gloves between caring for each patient suspected of having Ebola; exercise extreme care in carrying out invasive procedures; and keep infected patients separate from other patients and healthy people as much as possible.
Is it safe to travel during an outbreak? The risk from direct contact with an infected person's body fluids or secretions is "very low." Anyone who has stayed in areas where cases were recently reported should be aware of the symptoms of infection and seek medical attention at the first sign of illness.
Sources: World Health Organization and Associated Press