The truth about Ebola

Ebola strikes a few times each year, primarily in rural parts of Africa. With each outbreak, fear emerges about the virus spreading to other countries, including the US. Here are the facts about the virus.

Thankfully, the recent Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo seems to be slowing down. Researchers hope it will taper off by the end of June, with a final tally of over 70 infections and a few dozen dead.

Anytime Ebola hits, we are quickly reminded of the 2014 outbreak in which the World Health Organization calls the worst in history. That outbreak sickened more than 14,400 people, killed over 5,100 and touched US soil with 11 reported cases — nine of which contracted the disease outside of the country.

Eyes were subsequently opened to what could happen if an infectious disease like Ebola began to spread within US borders. Training measures and protocols have since been installed at various health care organizations across the country, including Northwell Health.

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a virus that spreads by secretions. Symptoms generally include fever, diarrhea and vomiting and can be fatal. Ebola’s origination is unclear, but scientists believe the virus is animal-borne, primarily from bats.

Survivors may experience side effects — even after recovery — such as tiredness, muscle aches, vision issues and stomach pain. They also need to get re-acclimated to their lives and community while dealing with the stigma that surrounds the virus.

What do you do if you experience Ebola symptoms?

See a health care provider immediately. Recognition is critical to recovery. The second step is isolation. People who contract the virus can be isolated from four to six, even eight or more weeks.

You may not be sick the entire time, but you still need to be kept alone as you shed the virus.

Measures to prevent Ebola outbreak

With JFK International Airport one of the main points of entry into the country, New Yorkers could be impacted if someone with Ebola entered the US. To quell these fears, health care providers have trained staff on identifying and treating of all infectious diseases, including Ebola. Northwell, for example, has trained staff to ask questions if individuals enter emergency departments with the virus’ symptoms: Have you recently traveled abroad? If so, have you visited the Congo?

Ebola vaccine

Researchers invested in an Ebola vaccine after the 2014 Western Africa outbreak. The vaccine was effective in trials in Guinea and Sierra Leone the following year, protecting individuals from the Zaire ebolavirus — the same virus that is infecting people in the Congo.

While this seems positive, it’s still unclear to whether the vaccine can prevent Ebola from spreading.

Misconceptions

Like any virus, there are common fallacies surrounding Ebola. The virus isn’t spread casually and it isn’t airborne. It can’t be contracted by passing someone in the street, sitting in their subway seat. 

The virus is only contracted though direct contact with an infected person (e.g., kissing, sharing food, exchange of blood, semen, sweat, etc.). It’s also important to remember that the likelihood of contracting Ebola doesn’t increase if you are actively sick. Your chances are the same. 

Mark Jarrett, MD, is Northwell Health’s senior vice president, chief quality officer and associate chief medical director. He is a professor of medicine at the Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell. Dr. Jarrett has extensive research experience, including on the immune response in systemic lupus erythematosus.

Northwell treats a wide range of infectious diseases.