With that in mind, Dr. Christopher Whalen, the interim head of the department of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, answered the following questions posed by the Athens Banner-Herald/OnlineAthens.com.
Q: What is Ebola?
A: Ebola is a virus, not a bacteria or a fungus. Viruses are not free-living, they have to live inside cells – unlike a bacteria or fungus, that can live on the surface of something like a doorknob.
Q: How do people contract Ebola?
A: It requires very close contact with a patient who is infectious through fluids or inhaling germs spread through a cough. Casual contact is less likely to spread Ebola.
Q: What are the basic symptoms of Ebola?
A: Ebola has a latency period after infection that lasts between two and 21 days before symptoms start to show. During this time, the virus enters cells and starts to replicate and spreads from cell to cell. It then spills into the bloodstream and then into the lymphatics and can spread throughout the body.
Early symptoms are nonspecific and include headaches, fever, diarrhea, lethargy and possibly a cough; symptoms that many other viruses can cause.
Later symptoms include hemorrhagic bleeding, which includes bleeding inside the lungs, in which case people will cough up blood; or bleeding in the intestines, which will result in blood in the stool.
Q: How is Ebola medically treated?
A: Early diagnosis is important because there is no antiviral treatment for Ebola. You hear about experimental treatments on the news right now, but there is no FDA-approved medication to treat Ebola. We give what is called supportive care. That means you maintain the vital signs of a person through intravenous fluid medications to reduce fever. If Ebola progresses it can cause what we refer to as end organ damage, which can trigger other types of treatments. We monitor the blood to see whether there is evidence of end organ damage and then react accordingly.
Q: What is the typical death rate for people who contract Ebola?
A: Experts say it’s anywhere from 50 to 90 percent. Looking at the statistics for the current epidemic, I took the number of deaths and divided it by the number of reported cases and got 60 percent.
It is a deadly virus, but I predict that the two people brought to (Atlanta) ... will survive because of good health care.
Q: Will bringing the two American diagnosed with Ebola from west Africa to this country cause an outbreak here?
A: Every precaution was taken in transporting them to the U.S. and admitting them to ... a hospital that has the highest technology you can imagine for health care. They are in isolation rooms that are specially designed with equipment to minimize the risk of the virus getting out of the room. The people treating them also wear hazmat suits and the rooms are filled with negative pressure and filters and nothing that goes into the room to treat the patients comes back out. It gets destroyed through proper disposal procedures.
I think the risk of the average Georgian contracting Ebola is close to zero. There’s no need to worry about getting Ebola from the two patients who came to the U.S.
In other comments on Ebola outbreaks, Whalen said it’s important to understand the role of the fruit bat.
“The current level of knowledge we have leads us to believe that, between outbreaks (in Africa), Ebola is being maintained in a reservoir of fruit bats,” he said. “We’ve seen these kinds of Ebola outbreaks in Africa for 20 years. They flare up and then they go away. Why does a country that hasn’t seen Ebola in five years suddenly have an outbreak? We think something happened in the ecosystem that brought a fruit bat that is infected into contact with a susceptible person.”
That’s important for people in this country to know, because it’s rare to find a fruit bat in the United States. They live in Africa, Asia, Australia and the Middle East.
“Any ... long-term Ebola in the U.S. is unlikely because it needs that reservoir (of fruit bats) and I don’t believe we have the right reservoir or the right habitat for the reservoir and humans to mix,” Whalen said. “Any contact people would have with Ebola in the U.S. would be spread through close contact (by someone infected with Ebola) like we are seeing in west Africa. Once that chain of transmission stops, Ebola in Africa will go away again. In the U.S. we are not even allowing that chain of transmission to get started, so it’s not going to go anywhere in the States.”