Important information about Ebola from Penn State Hershey

Dr. Cynthia Whitener, an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, provides information about Ebola virus disease, including what it is, how it's spread, how it's treated and what Penn State Hershey is doing to prepare for any patients who may present with Ebola symptoms.

Q&A on Ebola

  1. What is Ebola virus disease?
    Ebola virus disease, previously known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a rare and potentially deadly disease caused by infection with one of the Ebola virus strains. Ebola viruses are found in several African countries. Ebola was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since then, outbreaks have appeared sporadically in Africa. The 2014 Ebola outbreak is the largest in history and the first in West Africa. The current outbreak is affecting several countries: Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. There have also been travel-associated cases in Senegal.
  2. What are the symptoms of Ebola?
    The symptoms of Ebola include fever, a severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal (stomach) pain and unexplained bleeding or bruising. Symptoms may appear anywhere from 2 to 21 days after exposure to Ebola virus, but the average is 8 to 10 days.
  3. How is Ebola spread from person to person?
    The virus can be spread to other people in several ways. Ebola is spread through direct contact with blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with Ebola or through objects (like needles and syringes) that have been contaminated with the virus. According to the CDC, Ebola is not spread through the air or by water, or in general, food. Healthcare providers caring for Ebola patients and the family and friends in close contact with Ebola patients are at highest risk of getting sick because they may come into contact with infected blood or body fluids of sick patients. Such body fluids can include saliva, mucus, vomit, feces, sweat, tears, breast milk, urine and semen. The disease can spread within healthcare facilities if strict precautions are not followed at all times.
  4. When is a person with Ebola contagious?
    A person with Ebola is contagious while they have symptoms. Once they have recovered they can no longer spread the virus. However, Ebola virus has been found in semen for up to 3 months.
  5. Can Ebola be spread by coughing? By sneezing?
    Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with the body fluids of a person who has symptoms of Ebola disease. Although coughing and sneezing are not common symptoms of Ebola, if a symptomatic patient with Ebola coughs or sneezes on someone and saliva or mucus come into contact with that person's eyes, nose or mouth, these fluids may transmit the disease.
  6. What does "direct contact" mean?
    Direct contact means that body fluids (blood, saliva, mucus, vomit, urine or feces) from an infected person (alive or dead) have touched an individual's eyes, nose or mouth or open cut, wound or abrasion.
  7. How long does Ebola live outside the body?
    Ebola is killed with hospital grade disinfectants (such as household bleach). Ebola on dried surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops can survive for several hours; however, virus in body fluids (such as blood) can survive up to several days at room temperature.
  8. Are patients who recover from Ebola immune for life? Can they get it again - the same or a different strain?
    Recovery from Ebola depends on good supportive clinical care and a patient's immune response. Available evidence shows that people who recover from Ebola infection develop antibodies that last for at least 10 years, possibly longer. We don't know if people who recover are immune for life or if they can become infected with a different species of Ebola.
  9. If someone survives Ebola, can he or she still spread the virus?
    Once someone recovers from Ebola, they can no longer spread the virus.
  10. Can Ebola be spread through mosquitos?
    There is no evidence that mosquitos or other insects can transmit Ebola virus. Only mammals (for example, humans, bats, monkeys and apes) have shown the ability to spread and become infected with Ebola virus.
  11. How is Ebola treated?
    No specific vaccine or medicine (antiviral drug) has been proven to be effective specifically against the known strains of Ebola virus, so symptoms of Ebola are treated as they appear. Basic interventions often include providing intravenous fluids and balancing electrolytes, maintaining oxygen status and blood pressure, and treating other infections as they occur. When used early, these treatments can significantly improve the chances of survival. Recovery from Ebola depends largely on a patient's immune response.
  12. What steps and precautions would Penn State Hershey staff take if a person were to present with symptoms of Ebola?
    In January 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Health notified Penn State Hershey that it had been named an Ebola Treatment Center by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Penn State Hershey has a detailed policy in place for caring for individuals who are possibly infected with Ebola, as well as physicians on-staff who are board-certified in Infectious Diseases and a robust Infection Control and Prevention department. We are following protocols spelled out by the CDC with regard to assessing patients who present with fever, sweats and/or chills and have traveled to West Africa within the last three weeks. Should such a patient come to Penn State Hershey, a specific sequence of actions and precautions would occur, consistent with the CDC-issued recommendations. The patient would immediately be placed in isolation in a special room. Caregivers would use personal protective equipment. The identification of such a case would also trigger a series of immediate notifications to key hospital leadership and staff, which would include infectious diseases and infection prevention, as well as prompt notification of the PA Department of Health to initiate specialized testing and investigation of contacts.
  13. Is there a danger of Ebola spreading in the U.S.?
    Ebola is not spread through casual contact. Therefore, according to the CDC, the risk of an outbreak in the U.S. is very low.

Note: Some of the information above was adapted from the CDC website.

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