Health

FAQ: Everything you need to know about Ebola

Senior Matron Breda Athan demonstrates the procedure when preparing to treat potential patients with Ebola on Aug. 12, 2014 in London, England.
Senior Matron Breda Athan demonstrates the procedure when preparing to treat potential patients with Ebola on Aug. 12, 2014 in London, England.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The science | Health care facilities | Easing your fears

What is Ebola?

It's a rare and deadly disease caused by infection with one of the Ebola virus strains, according to the CDC.

The disease was first discovered in 1976, in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Researchers believe the first patient became infected through contact with an infected animal.

Outbreaks have occurred sporadically since then. Ebola resurfaced in West Africa in December 2013, according to this NPR timeline, which is updated regularly and tracks Ebola's impact on the United States. 

This one-minute video, from Vox.com, provides a succinct overview of the disease and its impact.

The science

What are the symptoms of Ebola?

These symptoms can appear anywhere from two to 21 days after a person is exposed to the disease, according to the CDC.  A person who's infected with Ebola is not contagious, and cannot spread the virus, until such symptoms appear, the CDC says.

How is Ebola transmitted?

Ebola is spread through direct contact — through the eyes, nose, mouth or broken skin — with blood or other bodily fluids, like urine, feces, saliva, vomit, sweat and semen, according to the CDC. It can also be transmitted through objects, like needles, that have been contaminated with the blood or bodily fluids of a person sick with Ebola.

Once someone recovers from Ebola, he can no longer spread the virus - except possibly through sexual contact, says the CDC. The agency says the virus has been found in the semen of men who have recovered from the disease as much as three months after infection. For that reason, it recommends abstinence from sex for at least three months following recovery.

How is Ebola treated?

There currently is no FDA-approved vaccine or medicine for Ebola. In the meantime, the CDC says the following interventions - especially when applied early - can improve  a person's chance of survival:

How contagious is Ebola?

While Ebola is deadly, it's not nearly as contagious as airborne disease, such as measles or the flu, as Michaeleen Doucleff explains for NPR. Again, it can only be spread through direct contact with a sick person's bodily fluids.

Who's at greatest risk for Ebola?

Health care providers who are caring for Ebola patients, and family members and friends who come in close contact with these patients, are at the highest risk of getting sick, because of their proximity to infected blood or body fluids, according to the CDC.

Sarah Kliff, of Vox.com, explains that in Liberia, a majority of health care workers infected with Ebola have been nurses. In the U.S., the only people so far who caught Ebola – from Duncan – were two nurses who treated him.

Health care facilities

Are hospitals in the U.S. capable of caring for an Ebola patient?

Any U.S. hospital that is following the CDC's infection control recommendations, and can isolate a patient in their own room,‎ is capable of safely managing a patient with Ebola, according to the CDC.

That being said, CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden indicated on Oct. 20, 2014 that people infected with Ebola might be better off at a "specialized center." Meanwhile, officials with the California Department of Public Health said they’re also considering designating certain hospitals in the state to treat Ebola. That way, they could ensure those facilities are even better prepared to handle the disease.

Which infection controls are health care professionals required to use to prevent the spread of Ebola? 

The CDC has three new recommendations for health care workers treating people with Ebola, NPR reports. They include:

KPCC's evolving Ebola glossary describes this personal protective gear, and why correctly donning and doffing the gear is vital.

How are hospitals, community health centers and outpatient clinics in Southern California preparing for a possible case of Ebola?

Several area hospitals have run Ebola preparedness drills. The Los Angeles Department of Public Health issued guidelines in October 2014 to help outpatient health care providers safely identify, isolate and, if needed, transfer a patient who may have Ebola.

Easing your fears

What's the likelihood I'll contract Ebola at the hospital?

It's extremely slim. Remember, Ebola is not spread through casual contact and is not airborne. So, your risk of getting infected is very low, even if you are in the same hospital, or waiting room, as a patient who has Ebola.

Still, what should I do - or not do - to protect myself, when visiting a hospital or riding public transportation?

When visiting a health care facility, or riding public transit, you should avoid making contact with other people’s blood or body fluids. 

Also, you should not handle items that may have come into contact with a sick person's blood or bodily fluids, like clothes, bedding, needles or medical equipment.

Of course, proper hygiene is always a good idea: You should be sure to wash your hands often with soap and water, or use an alcohol-based sanitizer.

Finally, do not touch the body of someone who has died of Ebola. And, avoid contact with bats, nonhuman primates, and the blood, fluids and raw meat prepared from these animals. 

Where do I go and what should I do if I feel I have been put at risk?

Although you may want to rush into a medical facility as soon as you think you've been exposed to Ebola, it's better to notify your doctor before you go into the doctor's office or emergency room, according to the CDC. By calling beforehand, it helps staff care for you, while protecting others from infection.

If you think you've been put at risk for Ebola, the CDC advises checking for signs and symptoms of Ebola for 21 days after the time you think you were exposed. Be sure to take your temperature every morning and night and watch for Ebola-like symptoms, such as severe headache, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain or unexplained bleeding or bruising.   

In addition, call your doctor even if you don’t have Ebola-like symptoms, because your doctor can evaluate your exposure level.