What is the Ebola virus and where is the latest outbreak?

THE Ebola virus claimed more than 11,300 lives in West Africa when it swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia in the 2013-2016 outbreak.

However, it is now devastating Congo, with health officials now confirming a second outbreak in the Equateur province.

What is Ebola?

The Ebola virus disease – previously called Ebola haemorrhagic fever – is a viral infection that occurs in humans and primates.

It causes an acute, serious illness which is often fatal when left untreated.

The virus begins with symptoms including fever, intense fatigue, muscle pain and a sore throat, before progressing to vomiting and diarrhoea as well as internal and external bleeding.

The virus is part of the Filoviridae family, which also includes the Marburg virus.

It was first detected in regions close to the River Ebola, which gave the disease its name.

To date, scientists have identified five strains of Ebola – four of which are known to cause disease in humans.

The natural reservoir – or host of the virus – is thought to be the fruit bat.

Non-human primates are a secondary host, and like humans develop fatal symptoms, so it is unlikely to be the reservoir.

In spite of the epidemic that swept West Africa from 2013, scientists class Ebola as a virus that has a relatively low infection rate.

During that, the most recent and widespread outbreak, one Ebola patient would typically pass the disease on to another two people.

That is compared with a disease like measles where one case can often lead to 18 new infections.

Guinea has now officially declared an Ebola epidemic after at least three people have died from the virus.

Where is the latest outbreak of Ebola?

The most recent outbreak is largely confined to Guinea, in West Africa.

Three people have died from the virus so far, forcing the government to declare an Ebola epidemic.

A total of seven patients fell ill after attending the burial of a nurse, reporting symptoms of diarrhoea, vomiting and bleeding, leading to the three deaths.

The health ministry said all cases were adults over the age of 25 and that contact tracing was ongoing despite the cases being isolated.

World Health Organisation officials have confirmed that newly developed vaccines will be acquired through them.

A treatment centre is set to be set up in Geoueké for patients.

Over 11,000 people died between 2013 and 2016 when the Ebola pandemic swept the West African continent, after it originated in roughly the same area of Guinea.

Neighbouring countries have been put on heightened alert after fears the outbreak could spread between areas such as Liberia and Sierra Leone, which have relatively weak healthcare systems.

Eastern Congo also confirmed the discovery of the virus at the beginning of February, as three cases were identified.


The terrifying surge in deaths resulted in the Ebola epidemic being declared an international health emergency in 2019, as it garnered greater international attention and aid.

It was only the fifth such designation, after the 2013-2016 West African Ebola epidemic that killed over 11,300 people, the 2009 flu pandemic, polio in 2014 and the Zika virus that caused a spate of birth defects across Latin America.

The outbreak in 2013 was catastrophic, leaving whole communities in ruins, thousands of children orphans and millions facing starvation.

Nearly 30,000 people across the three nations were infected with the disease, which is spread via contact with an infected person's bodily fluids.

From its epicentre in West Africa the epidemic reached Nigeria, Spain, the US and UK, only slowing in June 2016 when the WHO declared the outbreak in Liberia over.

On October 18,

The European Medicines Agency has recommended that the world's first Ebola vaccine be approved, after it was administered to hundreds of thousands of people in Africa.

Officials are testing a number of Ebola treatments but none is yet licensed.

Where did Ebola come from?

The Ebola virus was first identified by a team of scientists in what was then called Zaire, now known as Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 1976.

Until the last outbreak, the most widespread and deadliest ever, records show regular bursts of Ebola virus did occur.

However, they tended to be confined to villages close to rainforests in Central and West Africa.

Infection has been recorded in humans through contact with infected chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines.

What are the symptoms and mortality rate?

Prior to the 2014 outbreak in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia, the mortality rate of the Ebola virus had been between 25 and 89 per cent – with an average of 67 per cent.

During the West African outbreak, mortality varied between 25 to 90 per cent.

The virus has an incubation period of two to 21 days, meaning symptoms can take up to three weeks to appear from the time of infection.

Early symptoms of Ebola include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • muscle pain
  • sore throat
  • weakness

They are similar to those of other diseases, making diagnosis tricky in some cases.

Later as the disease progresses, it can cause:

  • diarrhoea
  • vomiting
  • rash
  • impaired kidney and liver function
  • stomach pain
  • internal and external bleeding

How is the Ebola virus transmitted?

Ebola is not an airborne disease, and as such it is impossible for a person to become infected by inhaling the same air as a patient.

However, the West African outbreak revealed how infectious the virus can be.

It is spread via a person's bodily fluids.

Coming into a contact with an Ebola patient's blood secretions, organs, sweat, urine, tears, semen and other fluids, can cause the infection to spread.

Those at highest risk are typically healthcare workers, family members of those infected and other people who come into close contact with an infected person.

Sexual transmission can occur, from men to women or men, after a person's symptoms have disappeared and they are declared free from the disease.

As such, world health experts advise abstaining from unprotected sex for up to nine months after being given the all clear – as scientific studies have found traces of Ebola in men's semen after this length of time.

How is Ebola treated?

The health response relies on tracking down people who may have been exposed to the virus and vaccinating them and anybody they have had contact with.

There is no single treatment for the Ebola virus. Rather, patients's symptoms are addressed.
Severely ill patients require intensive supportive care, with intravenous fluids to re-hydrate them.

But it emerged in December 2016 that a new and effective vaccine had been developed by a team in Guinea,

It has not yet been approved by any regulatory bodies but the experimental vaccine has been shown to provide 100 per cent protection against the disease as it was used in the dying days of the last outbreak.

Already a stockpile of 300,000 doses of the medication has been built up should an outbreak flare up again.

Marie-Paule Kieny of the WHO said: "“While these compelling results come too late for those who lost their lives during West Africa’s Ebola epidemic, they show that when the next outbreak hits, we will not be defenceless.

“The world can’t afford the confusion and human disaster that came with the last epidemic.”

Currently the risks are too high to start giving the vaccine to healthy kids and adults not in immediate danger of infection, according to experts.

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