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Ebola Outbreak can Threaten Global Safety: What You Need to Know About the Disease

Update Date: Jul 29, 2014 03:52 PM EDT

An Ebola outbreak in Africa has been linked to a total of 672 fatalities in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone so far. Recently, the illness has infected two Americans working abroad in Liberia. The patients, a doctor and a hygienist, are fighting for their lives. Even though the outbreak has been relatively contained, United States health officials warn that the illness could present itself within the U.S.

"It's true that anyone with an illness is just one plane ride away from coming to the U.S.," said John O'Connor, a spokesman for the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported by ABC News. "But we have protections in place."

Despite these protections, Ebola is still a very threatening illness. Here are four things to know about the disease.

1. What is Ebola?

Ebola virus disease (EVD) is a severe acute viral infection that causes initial symptoms such as sudden onset fever, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and intense weakness. These symptoms are often followed by vomiting, diarrhea, impaired kidney and liver function, rash, and occasionally internal and external bleeding. The disease was first detected in 1972 when two outbreaks occurred in Nzara, Sudan and Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo at the same time. There are five distinct species of the Ebola virus, which belongs to the Filoviridae family.

2. It is Fatal?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), Ebola outbreaks "have a case fatality of up to 90 percent." Depending on the strain of the disease, the death rate ranges from 50 to 90 percent. Survival rates can improve if the disease is caught and treated early on. When it is detected too late, the combination of a high fever, vomiting and diarrhea is often fatal. The mortality rate for this current outbreak is at 60 percent.

3. How is it Transmitted and Could it Come to the U.S.?

Researchers believe that the Ebola virus was first transmitted to humans through close contact with infected animals' blood, secretions, organs or other types of bodily fluids. Once infected, the disease can spread rapidly throughout a community via direct contact with an infected person's blood or bodily fluids. There is evidence that indirect transmission can occur through the environment. The two infected Americans had worked directly with infected patients.

The virus could spread to other countries. In some patients, symptoms can take three weeks to show up. If the infected patient gets on a plane, he/she can infect the people in the plane, as well as the people within his/her community. However, airline workers have been trained to spot symptoms. If someone is suspected of being infected, the workers should know how to handle and contain the situation before it worsens.

"There's nothing to prevent someone traveling here asymptomatically during the incubation period," said ABC News' chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser. "It's one of the reasons we have a vested interest in helping to control outbreaks where they start."

4. Is there a cure?

There is currently no cure for the Ebola virus. Infected patients are isolated and treated with saline and fever-reducing drugs. Antibiotics do not work against viral diseases and current antiviral medications have been ineffective in treating this infection. There is also no vaccine that can protect people from the virus. Doctors are working to create some kind of treatment for Ebola.

Even though the outbreak is happening in remote villages where people do not have the means to travel via plane, the CDC is reminding travelers to be extra careful. Travelers should avoid contact with people who might be infected. If infected, seek medical care immediately.

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