Ebola Virus: Symptoms, Causes, Prevention, Treatment & Vaccines

Ebola virus disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is a rare but severe, often fatal illness in humans.

The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads in the human population through human-to-human transmission.

The average EVD case fatality rate is around 50%. Case fatality rates have varied from 25% to 90% in past outbreaks.

Causes

It is thought that fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family are natural Ebola virus hosts. Ebola is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals such as fruit bats, chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope or porcupines found ill or dead or in the rainforest.

Ebola then spreads through human-to-human transmission via direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with:

  • Blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with or has died from Ebola
  • Objects that have been contaminated with body fluids (like blood, feces, vomit) from a person sick with Ebola or the body of a person who died from Ebola

Health-care workers have frequently been infected while treating patients with suspected or confirmed EVD. This occurs through close contact with patients when infection control precautions are not strictly practiced.

Burial ceremonies that involve direct contact with the body of the deceased can also contribute in the transmission of Ebola.

People remain infectious as long as their blood contains the virus.

Pregnant women who get acute Ebola and recover from the disease may still carry the virus in breastmilk, or in pregnancy related fluids and tissues. This poses a risk of transmission to the baby they carry, and to others. Women who become pregnant after surviving Ebola disease are not at risk of carrying the virus.

If a breastfeeding woman who is recovering from Ebola wishes to continue breastfeeding, she should be supported to do so. Her breast milk needs to be tested for Ebola before she can start.

Symptoms

Early on, Ebola can feel like the flu or other illnesses. Symptoms show up 2 to 21 days after infection and usually include:

  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Joint and muscle aches
  • Sore throat
  • Weakness
  • Stomach pain
  • Lack of appetite

As the disease gets worse, it causes bleeding inside the body, as well as from the eyes, ears, and nose. Some people will vomit or cough up blood, have bloody diarrhea, and get a rash.

Diagnosis

The early symptoms of Ebola can closely mimic other diseases like the flu, malaria, and typhoid fever.

Blood tests can identify antibodies of the Ebola virus. These may also reveal:

  • Either unusually low or high white blood cell counts
  • Low platelet counts
  • Elevated liver enzymes
  • Abnormal coagulation factor levels

In addition to blood tests, a doctor will also consider whether others in the patient’s community could be at risk.

Since Ebola may occur within three weeks of exposure, anyone with possible exposure might undergo an incubation period of the same timeframe. If no symptoms appear within 21 days, Ebola is ruled out.

Prevention

Good outbreak control relies on applying a package of interventions, including case management, surveillance and contact tracing, a good laboratory service, safe burials and social mobilisation. Community engagement is key to successfully controlling outbreaks. Raising awareness of risk factors for Ebola infection and protective measures (including vaccination) that individuals can take is an effective way to reduce human transmission. Risk reduction messaging should focus on several factors:

  • Reducing the risk of wildlife-to-human transmission from contact with infected fruit bats, monkeys, apes, forest antelope or porcupines and the consumption of their raw meat. Animals should be handled with gloves and other appropriate protective clothing. Animal products (blood and meat) should be thoroughly cooked before consumption.
  • Reducing the risk of human-to-human transmission from direct or close contact with people with Ebola symptoms, particularly with their bodily fluids. Gloves and appropriate personal protective equipment should be worn when taking care of ill patients. Regular hand washing is required after visiting patients in hospital, as well as after taking care of patients at home.
  • Outbreak containment measures, including safe and dignified burial of the dead, identifying people who may have been in contact with someone infected with Ebola and monitoring their health for 21 days, the importance of separating the healthy from the sick to prevent further spread, and the importance of good hygiene and maintaining a clean environment.
  • Reducing the risk of possible sexual transmission, based on further analysis of ongoing research and consideration by the WHO Advisory Group on the Ebola Virus Disease Response, WHO recommends that male survivors of EVD practice safer sex and hygiene for 12 months from onset of symptoms or until their semen tests negative twice for Ebola virus. Contact with body fluids should be avoided and washing with soap and water is recommended. WHO does not recommend isolation of male or female convalescent patients whose blood has been tested negative for Ebola virus.
  • Reducing the risk of transmission from pregnancy related fluids and tissue, Pregnant women who have survived Eboa disease need community support to enable them to attend frequent antenatal care (ANC) visits, to handle any pregnancy complications and meet their need for sexual and reproductive care and delivery in a safe way. This should be planned together with the Ebola and Obstetric health care expertise. Pregnant women should always be respected in the sexual and reproductive health choices they make.

Controlling infection in health-care settings

Health-care workers should always take standard precautions when caring for patients, regardless of their presumed diagnosis. These include basic hand hygiene, respiratory hygiene, use of personal protective equipment (to block splashes or other contact with infected materials), safe injection practices and safe burial practices.

Health-care workers caring for patients with suspected or confirmed Ebola virus should apply extra infection control measures to prevent contact with the patient’s blood and body fluids and contaminated surfaces or materials such as clothing and bedding. When in close contact (within 1 metre) of patients with EVD, health-care workers should wear face protection (a face shield or a medical mask and goggles), a clean, non-sterile long-sleeved gown, and gloves (sterile gloves for some procedures).

Laboratory workers are also at risk. Samples taken from humans and animals for investigation of Ebola infection should be handled by trained staff and processed in suitably equipped laboratories.

Care for people who recovered from EVD

A number of medical complications have been reported in people who recovered from Ebola, including mental health issues. Ebola virus may persist in some body fluids, including semen, pregnancy-related fluids and breast milk.

Ebola survivors need comprehensive support for the medical and psychosocial challenges they face and also to minimize the risk of continued Ebola virus transmission. To address these needs, a dedicated programme can be set up for care for people who recovered from Ebola.

Ebola virus is known to persist in immune-privileged sites in some people who have recovered from Ebola virus disease. These sites include the testicles, the inside of the eye, and the central nervous system. In women who have been infected while pregnant, the virus persists in the placenta, amniotic fluid and fetus. In women who have been infected while breastfeeding, the virus may persist in breast milk.

Relapse-symptomatic illness in someone who has recovered from EVD due to increased replication of the virus in a specific site is a rare event, but has been documented. Reasons for this phenomenon are not yet fully understood.

Studies of viral persistence indicate that in a small percentage of survivors, some body fluids may test positive on reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing for Ebola virus for longer than 9 months.

More surveillance data and research are needed on the risks of sexual transmission, and particularly on the prevalence of viable and transmissible virus in semen over time. In the interim, and based on present evidence, WHO recommends that:

  • All Ebola survivors and their sexual partners should receive counselling to ensure safer sexual practices until their semen has twice tested negative. Survivors should be provided with condoms.
  • Male Ebola survivors should be offered semen testing at 3 months after onset of disease, and then, for those who test positive, every month thereafter until their semen tests negative for virus twice by RT-PCR, with an interval of one week between tests.
  • Ebola survivors and their sexual partners should either:
    • abstain from all types of sex, or
    • oobserve safer sex through correct and consistent condom use until their semen has twice tested negative.
  • Having tested negative, survivors can safely resume normal sexual practices without fear of Ebola virus transmission.
  • Based on further analysis of ongoing research and consideration by the WHO Advisory Group on the Ebola Virus Disease Response, WHO recommends that male survivors of Ebola virus disease practice safe sex and hygiene for 12 months from onset of symptoms or until their semen tests negative twice for Ebola virus.
  • Until such time as their semen has twice tested negative for Ebola, survivors should practice good hand and personal hygiene by immediately and thoroughly washing with soap and water after any physical contact with semen, including after masturbation. During this period, used condoms should be handled safely, and safely disposed of, so as to prevent contact with seminal fluids.
  • All survivors, their partners and families should be shown respect, dignity and compassion.

Treatment

There’s no cure for Ebola, though researchers are working on it. There are two drug treatments which have been approved for treating Ebola. 

Inmazeb is a mixture of three monoclonal antibodies (atoltivimab, maftivimab, and odesivimab-ebgn).

Ansuvimab-zykl (Ebanga) is a monoclonal antibody given as an injection. It helps block the virus from to the cell receptor, preventing its entry into the cell.

Doctors manage the symptoms of Ebola with:

  • Fluids and electrolytes
  • Oxygen
  • Blood pressure medication
  • Blood transfusions
  • Treatment for other infections

Vaccines

An experimental Ebola vaccine proved highly protective against EVD in a major trial in Guinea in 2015. The vaccine, called rVSV-ZEBOV, was studied in a trial involving 11 841 people.

Among the 5837 people who received the vaccine, no Ebola cases were recorded 10 days or more after vaccination. In comparison, there were 23 cases 10 days or more after vaccination among those who did not receive the vaccine.

The rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine is being used in the ongoing 2018-2019 Ebola outbreak in DRC. Pregnant and breastfeeding women should have access to the vaccine under the same conditions as for the general population.