Saturday, 2 August 2014

Ebola outbreak: quick guide on the science

This isn't the normal chirpy, snarky post. Just to let you guys know.

If you've been watching the news, you'll probably know a disease called Ebola has been making the rounds lately, especially in African countries but also threatening places all around the world.

Please, from behind our computers, a moment of silence for the victims of this frighteningly lethal disease.

I've realized that news reports, while immensely helpful in tracking the disease's progress, are not always very clear on the scientific aspects. As an aspiring medical student/researcher, I feel it necessary to steer my blog into more serious waters and write up a quick guide for anyone who wants to know more. And to be honest, I think it's our responsibility as a global citizen to know more.

Ebola haemorrhagic fever is caused by a virus (pictured on the left). It has a lethality rate of 50-90%, which is extremely high. For reference, the death rate for tuberculosis (TB) is about 10-15%, according to WHO. Getting infected isn't that far off from a death sentence, especially since there's no cure (more on that later).


Common symptoms are rashes, vomiting, body pain, fever, internal and external bleeding (i.e. haemorrhage), and organ failure. The last two are often the causes of death.

Incubation period lasts up to around 3 weeks, and infection can occur through exchange of body fluids, which is mostly blood in this case because the patients often have external wounds called lesions. The natural host is probably the fruit bat, but person-to-person infection is more dangerous IMO because it allows the virus to spread to other regions and countries. Corpses are also possible infection pools and are often burnt. Medical workers (whom I have undying respect for) wear full-body protective gear when treating patients.

Which brings me to the next point. There is no cure or vaccine for Ebola, at least currently. This makes it doubly dangerous in addition to its range of symptoms. Only supportive care is possible, which means giving patients water, food, oxygen supply, etc. in order to reinforce the immune system and hope for the best. In particular, rehydration of the patient is extremely important.

So, thank you for bearing with me during this post, and I'm sure our hearts go out to the victims, the patients, their loved ones, and the medical workers. In all seriousness, may the odds be ever in your favor.

I referred to WHO's website occasionally in the writing of this post. If you have any questions, please do feel free to ask in the comments section and I'll answer to the best of my ability. Thanks!

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