The National Academies: What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

The National Academies

What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever

Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (HF) is a serious disease that is spread by a RNA virus in the family called Filoviridae. The disease is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). Five subtypes have been identified, four of which cause disease in humans. Although the exact origin of the virus is not known, scientists think that it probably came from a monkey native to Africa. In addition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, outbreaks have been reported in Sudan, the Ivory Coast, Uganda, and the Republic of the Congo.

Although scientists hypothesize that the first human got the virus through contact with an infected animal, in recent cases, humans are infected through contact with another person, their fluids, and even contaminated clothing or objects, such as needles. Ebola also can be transmitted during burial ceremonies, which involve contact with a dead person. For these reasons, the virus can spread easily through families caring for a sick person or burying a loved one who has died.

The virus has an incubation period of 2 to 21 days and then can “hit” quickly. Early symptoms include fever and headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, and weakness. These symptoms are followed by diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. In some cases, the patient may experience a rash, red eyes, hiccups, and internal and external bleeding.

Ebola HF has proven to be difficult to both diagnose and treat. Clinically, if all of the listed symptoms are present, a diagnosis can be made. Specialized laboratory tests that detect antigens of the virus or its genes in blood samples are available as well. Sometimes, too, antibodies to the virus can be picked up in standard blood tests. Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment for the virus. Patients are monitored and supported by balancing their fluids and electrolytes, ensuring that their breathing and blood pressure remain steady, and treating them for any complications that arise.

Because scientists do not know the origin of the virus, it is impossible to practice primary prevention, or preventing the onset of an outbreak. The best that can be done is containing the virus once individuals have been diagnosed. That can be accomplished by isolating any infected patients and having health care workers wear protective clothing, including masks, goggles, gloves, and gowns. In addition, all equipment used to treat patients must be sterilized.

These methods do work, but implementing them in Africa comes with its own set of challenges. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) are working on updated guidelines to help health care facilities in Africa diagnose the virus promptly and isolate patients to prevent widespread infection.


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What do you know about infectious disease?

True or False: Our bodies contain at least 10 times more human cells than bacterial cells.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    Our bodies contain at least 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells. 

  • Correct!

    Our bodies contain at least 10 times more bacterial cells than human cells. 

Infectious Disease Defined

World Health Organization (WHO)

The directing and coordinating authority for health within the United Nations system, responsible for providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options, providing technical support to countries and monitoring and assessing health trends.

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