Ebola: Scary Facts About A Very Scary Virus

Created by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) microbiologist Frederick Murphy, this artificially coloured transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image reveals some of the structure displayed by an Ebola virus. Courtesy: CDC/ Frederick A. Murphy

Ebola. This artificially coloured image, created by US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) microbiologist Frederick Murphy using a transmission electron microscope (TEM), reveals some of the structure displayed by an Ebola virus. Courtesy: CDC/ Frederick A. Murphy

Diseases do not come a lot worse than Ebola – the virus that has so far killed at least 672 people since February in an outbreak in west Africa that appears to be out of control.

There is no cure, no effective treatment and between 50 per cent and 90 per cent of those who develop the disease will die. It is true that Rabies is more deadly once the symptoms set in – but at least there is a vaccine for that.

Ebola is characterized by the sudden onset of fever, weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat followed by vomiting and diarrhoea, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Reports that the disease liquefies body organs are exaggerated but Ebola is a haemorrhagic fever that can cause bleeding from the eyes, nose and mouth, bloody bruising beneath the skin and bulbous black blistering on the skin while destroying the liver, kidneys and other internal organs. Death can occur within days of the symptoms emerging.

Black Death

Some scientists even speculate that similarities in the symptoms and in the pattern of spread suggest that it was, in fact, an Ebola-like haemorrhagic disease, rather than Bubonic Plague, behind the Black Death which wiped out a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century.

Ebola is transmitted through contact with infected body fluids which puts medical workers and carers at the greatest risk of infection. Indeed, two doctors leading the fight against the disease in Africa – Dr. Samuel Brisbane, a top Liberian health official, and Sheik Umar Khan, a leading Sierra Leone doctor – have both died in the last few days after contracting Ebola.

Most recent data on the current outbreak. Courtesy: WHO.

Passengers who travelled with Patrick Sawyer, the Ebola victim who flew from Liberia to Nigeria on 20 July while vomiting and suffering from diarrhoea, will be very frightened at the moment – and rightly so. Experts say that Sawyer could have passed on the disease to anyone who had been sitting near him or who had shared aircraft and airport toilets used by him. The incubation period between infection and the onset of symptoms is believed to be between two days and three weeks.

Sawyer died in Nigeria. He is believed to have caught Ebola from his sister who had just died from the disease. Reports suggest that he had already started showing symptoms by the time he boarded his flight which raises awkward questions for the airlines. Many of the passengers who travelled with him will have flown on to other destinations – possibly including Britain, mainland Europe, Asia and the North America. Public Health England has already issued an alert to doctors warning them to be on the lookout for symptoms of Ebola.

No airborne transmission

The current outbreak has afflicted Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea – and now Nigeria. It is the largest outbreak of Ebola ever recorded. The latest figures from the WHO show that there had been 1201 cases and 672 deaths in the period to 23 July. Previously, the disease mostly occurred in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo and until this current episode there had been fewer than 1,000 cases ever recorded in humans.


Historic outbreaks of Ebola. Courtesy: WHO.

Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara in Sudan, and in Yambuku in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a village situated near the Ebola River. The virus lurks in the African forests where fruit bats are suspected to provide a reservoir for the disease and are believed to infect other animals including primates and pigs and antelopes – which then pass it on to humans. Human-to-human transmission is easier in countries with limited healthcare systems and where the population has not been fully informed about the dangers of infection through bodily fluids.

Ebola is a truly frightening virus but, despite the fact that the current outbreak shows no signs of subsiding, we are unlikely to see any repeat of the Black Death today. Public information campaigns and a focus on infection control should eventually bring the situation in Africa under control.

A major outbreak in Britain, Europe or North America is highly unlikely. Ironically, it is very deadliness of Ebola and the fact that symptoms are so rapidly debilitating that make it difficult for the disease to spread widely and more likely that effective infection control measures will work. That and the fact that Ebola is not believed to be transmitted between humans through the air – unlike, for example, influenza.

However, research published in 2012 showed that Ebola can be transmitted between pigs and monkeys through the air.

If airborne person-to-person transmission of Ebola were ever to be confirmed as helping to fuel this current outbreak then that would be a real cause for concern.

Until then, there is no need to panic.


WHO Ebola information here.

WHO Ebola outbreak update here.

Scientific paper on airborne Ebola transmission: Transmission of Ebola virus from pigs to non-human primates by Hana M. Weingartl, Carissa Embury-Hyatt, Charles Nfon, Anders Leung, Greg Smith & Gary Kobinger published in Scientific Reports 2,Article number:811 doi:10.1038/srep00811 here.

Scientific paper on the Black Death: What caused the Black Death? by C J Duncan, and S Scott published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, Postgrad Med J 2005;81:315-320 doi:10.1136/pgmj.2004.024075 here.

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