Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (Ebola Virus Disease)

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP
    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Jerry R. Balentine, DO, FACEP

    Dr. Balentine received his undergraduate degree from McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. He attended medical school at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine graduating in1983. He completed his internship at St. Joseph's Hospital in Philadelphia and his Emergency Medicine residency at Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx, where he served as chief resident.

Ebola Virus Pictures Slideshow

Ebola hemorrhagic fever (Ebola virus disease) facts

  • Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a disease caused by four different strains of Ebola virus; these viruses infect humans and nonhuman primates. It is also referred to as Ebola virus disease.
  • Compared to most illnesses, Ebola hemorrhagic fever has a relatively short history since it was only discovered in 1976. There have been several Ebola outbreaks, including the 2014-2016 "unprecedented epidemic" in Africa, which has abated.
  • After an incubation period of two to 21 days, symptoms and signs of Ebola virus disease include
  • Progression of Ebola symptoms includes
  • Ebola viruses are mainly found in primates in Africa and possibly the Philippines; there are only occasional Ebola outbreaks of infection in humans. Ebola hemorrhagic fever occurs mainly in Africa in the Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Sudan, Ivory Coast, and Uganda, but it may occur in other African countries.
  • Ebola virus can be spread by direct contact with blood and secretions, by contact with blood and secretions that remain on clothing, and by needles and/or syringes or other medical supplies used to treat Ebola-infected patients.
  • Risk factors for Ebola hemorrhagic fever are travel to areas with endemic Ebola hemorrhagic fever and/or any close association with infected people.
  • Early clinical diagnosis is difficult as the symptoms are nonspecific; however, if the patient is suspected to have Ebola, the patient needs to be isolated and local and state health departments need to be immediately contacted.
  • Definitive diagnostic tests for Ebola hemorrhagic fever are ELISA and/or PCR tests; viral cultivation and biopsy samples may also be used.
  • There is no standard treatment for Ebola hemorrhagic fever; only supportive therapy and experimental treatment is available.
  • There are many complications from Ebola hemorrhagic fever causing a high mortality rate (reported mortality rates equal about 25%-100%).
  • Prevention of Ebola hemorrhagic fever is difficult; early testing and isolation of the patient plus barrier protection for caregivers (mask, gown, goggles, and gloves) is very important to prevent other people from getting infected.
  • Researchers are trying to understand the Ebola virus and pinpoint its ecological reservoirs to better understand how Ebola outbreaks occur. Researchers are actively trying to establish an effective vaccine against Ebola viruses.
  • A list of organizations where people can find more information about Ebola is provided.
Picture of the Ebola virus
Picture of the Ebola virus

Quick GuideEbola Virus: Outbreak, Symptoms, and Treatment

Ebola Virus: Outbreak, Symptoms, and Treatment

Ebola Symptoms & Signs

Symptoms of Ebola virus infection are similar to those produced by other hemorrhagic fever viruses and include

  • fever,
  • fatigue, malaise, and weakness,
  • reddened eyes,
  • joint and muscle pain,
  • headache,
  • nausea and vomiting.

Additional Ebola symptoms may include

  • diarrhea,
  • stomach pain and loss of appetite,
  • cough, sore throat, and difficulty swallowing,
  • rash,
  • hiccups,
  • chest pain,
  • breathing problems.

As the disease worsens in severity, symptoms can include bleeding at various sites within or outside of the body.

Read more about Ebola symptoms and signs

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What is Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a viral disease caused by Ebola virus that results in nonspecific symptoms (see symptom section of this article) early in the disease and often causes internal and external hemorrhage (bleeding) as the disease progresses. Ebola hemorrhagic fever is considered one of the most lethal viral infections; the mortality rate (death rate) is very high during outbreaks (reports of outbreaks range from about 50%-100% of people infected, depending on the Ebola strain); consequently the survival rate may range from about 50% to zero. Due to the fact that most outbreaks occur in areas where high-level intensive-care supportive services are not available, survival rates are difficult to translate to potential outbreaks in areas with more resources.

What is the history of Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Ebola hemorrhagic fever was first noted in Zaire (currently, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or DRC) in 1976. The original outbreak was in a village near the Ebola River after which the disease was named. During that time, the virus was identified in person-to-person contact transmission. Of the 318 patients diagnosed with Ebola, 88% died. Since that time, there have been multiple outbreaks of Ebola virus, and five strains have been identified; four of the strains are responsible for the high death rates. The four Ebola strains are termed as follows: Zaire, Sudan, Tai Forest, and Bundibugyo virus, with Zaire ebolavirus being the most lethal strain. A fifth strain termed Reston has been found in the Philippines. The strain infects primates, pigs, and humans and causes few if any symptoms and no deaths in humans. Most outbreaks of the more lethal strains of Ebola have occurred in West Africa and mainly in small- or medium-sized towns. Bats, monkeys, and other animals are thought to maintain the virus life cycle in the wild; humans can become infected from handling and/or eating infected animals. Once an Ebola outbreak is recognized, African officials isolate the area until the outbreak ceases. However, in the last outbreak that began in West Africa in March 2014, some of the infected people reached larger city centers before the outbreak was recognized; this caused further spread. The infecting Ebola virus detected during this outbreak was the Zaire strain, the most pathogenic strain of Ebola. Health agencies are terming this outbreak as an "unprecedented epidemic." This epidemic spread quickly in the West African countries of Guinea and Sierra Leone. In addition, countries of Liberia, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, and Mali all reported confirmed infections with Ebola. In addition, a few infections were noted in the United States, Spain, and the United Kingdom; most of the people with Ebola in these countries were either imported infections from West Africa or were newly spread infections from treating patients who originally became infected in Africa.

Is the Ebola virus contagious?

Ebola viruses are highly contagious once early symptoms such as fever develop. The infected patient sheds infectious viruses in all body secretions; direct contact with any of these secretions may cause the virus to be transmitted to uninfected individuals. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests that infection with Ebola that is airborne is theoretically possible but unlikely.

What causes Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

The cause of Ebola hemorrhagic fever is Ebola virus infection that results in coagulation abnormalities, including gastrointestinal bleeding, development of a rash, cytokine release, damage to the liver, and massive viremia (large number of viruses in the blood) that leads to damaged vascular cells that form blood vessels. As the massive viremia continues, coagulation factors are compromised and the microvascular endothelial cells are damaged or destroyed, resulting in diffuse bleeding internally and externally (bleeding from the mucosal surfaces like nasal passages and/or mouth and gums and even from the eyes [termed conjunctival bleeding]). This uncontrolled bleeding leads to blood and fluid loss and can cause hypotensive shock that causes death in many Ebola-infected patients.

Picture of the Ebola virus, viewed with an electron microscope
Picture of the Ebola virus, viewed with an electron microscope; SOURCE: CDC/Frederick Murphy

Quick GuideEbola Virus: Outbreak, Symptoms, and Treatment

Ebola Virus: Outbreak, Symptoms, and Treatment

What are risk factors for Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

The risk factors for Ebola hemorrhagic fever are travel to areas where Ebola infections (see current CDC travel advisories for African countries) have been reported. In addition, association with animals (mainly primates in the area where Ebola infections have been reported) is potentially a health risk factor according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another potential source of the virus is eating or handling "bush meat." Bush meat is the meat of wild animals, including hoofed animals, primates, bats, and rodents. Evidence for any airborne transmission of this virus is lacking. During Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreaks, health care workers and family members and friends associated with an infected person are at the highest risk of getting the disease. Researchers who study Ebola hemorrhagic fever viruses are also at risk of developing the disease if a laboratory accident occurs. Caring for infected patients who are near-death or disposing of bodies of individuals that have recently died of Ebola infection is a very high risk factor because in these situations, the Ebola virus is highly concentrated in any blood or bodily secretions. Caregivers are recommended to wear appropriate personal protective equipment (See the CDC site http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/healthcare-us/hospitals/infection-control.html for details).

What are Ebola virus disease symptoms and signs?

Unfortunately, early symptoms of Ebola virus disease are nonspecific and include

As the disease progresses, patients may develop other symptoms and signs such as

What types of health care professionals treat Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Because Ebola infections can be rapidly spread to others and because health care workers can be easily infected by patients, the CDC and other agencies recommend that only highly trained personnel treat Ebola patients. This treatment involves high-level barrier techniques to protect all health care professionals (hospital care workers, nurses, doctors, lab technicians, janitors, and hospital infectious-disease-control personnel). Unfortunately, these trained individuals and resources are often not available in the Ebola high risk areas. Ideally, individuals diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. should be treated in specific designated treatment centers and treatment monitored by the CDC. Types of specialists who may treat Ebola-infected patients are emergency medicine specialists, infectious disease specialists, critical care doctors and nurses, pulmonologists, hematologists, hospitalists, and hospital infection-control personnel.

What is the contagious period for the Ebola virus?

For those patients who survive infection, they may remain contagious for approximately 21-42 days after symptoms abate. However, the viruses can be recovered from semen, breast milk, spinal column, and ocular fluids. It is unclear, according to the CDC, if viruses can be transmitted by these fluids, although the CDC suggests that Ebola can be spread by semen and suggest male survivors of the disease abstain from sex or use a condom for all sexual activity.

What is the incubation period for the Ebola virus?

Ebola virus disease symptoms and signs may appear from about two to 21 days after exposure (average incubation period is eight to 10 days). It is unclear why some patients can survive and others die from this disease, but patients who die usually have a poor immune response to the virus. Patients who survive have symptoms that can be severe for a week or two; recovery is often slow (weeks to months) and some survivors have chronic problems such as fatigue and eye problems.

Quick GuideEbola Virus: Outbreak, Symptoms, and Treatment

Ebola Virus: Outbreak, Symptoms, and Treatment

How do health care professionals diagnose Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Ebola hemorrhagic fever is diagnosed preliminarily by clinical suspicion due to association with other individuals with Ebola and with the early symptoms described above. Within a few days after symptoms develop, tests such as ELISA, PCR, and virus isolation can provide definitive diagnosis. Later in the disease or if the patient recovers, IgM and IgG antibodies against the infecting Ebola strain can be detected; similarly, studies using immunohistochemistry testing, PCR, and virus isolation in deceased patients is also done usually for epidemiological purposes.

What is the medical treatment for Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

According to the CDC and others, standard treatment for Ebola hemorrhagic fever is still limited to supportive therapy. Supportive therapy is balancing the patient's fluid and electrolytes, maintaining their oxygen status and blood pressure, and treating such patients for any complicating infections. Any patients suspected of having Ebola hemorrhagic fever should be isolated, and caregivers should wear protective garments. Currently, there is no specific medical treatment for Ebola hemorrhagic fever according to the CDC. The CDC recommends the following medical treatments for Ebola-infected patients:

  • Providing intravenous fluids (IV) and balancing electrolytes (body salts)
  • Maintaining oxygen status and blood pressure
  • Treating other infections if they occur

Patients diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. are sent to special hospitals certified to treat Ebola patients. (Contact the CDC immediately for information for experimental vaccines, treatment protocols, and patient care and/or transfer to an appropriate facility.) The special hospitals were certified because of the problems experienced in a Texas hospital where the first patient in the U.S. was diagnosed with Ebola and subsequently spread the disease to hospital workers. Experimental medical treatments of Ebola infections include immune serum, antiviral drugs, possible blood transfusions, and supportive care in an intensive-care hospital facility approved by the CDC to treat Ebola infections.

What are complications of Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Ebola hemorrhagic fever often has many complications; organ failures, severe bleeding, jaundice, delirium, shock, seizures, coma, and death (about 50%-100% of infected patients). Those patients fortunate enough to survive Ebola hemorrhagic fever still may have complications that may take many months to resolve. Survivors may experience weakness, fatigue, headaches, hair loss, hepatitis, sensory changes, and inflammation of organs (for example, the testicles and the eyes). Some may have Ebola linger in their semen for months and others may have the virus latently infect their eye(s).

Male patients may have detectable Ebola viruses in their semen for as long as six months after they survive the infection. Researchers consider the chance of getting infected with Ebola from semen is very low; however they recommend utilizing condoms for six months; some experts suggest a longer time.

It is apparent that we don't know everything about how to cure Ebola infections. A physician who was thought to be cured of Ebola, Dr. Ian Crozier, in fall 2014 developed burning light sensitivity in his eyes. He returned to Emory University where he was treated and after several tests he was found to have Ebola infection in his eyes. However, only the fluid removed by needle from his eyes showed viable virus; his tears and the outer membrane of his eyes had no detectable virus. Consequently, health care professionals considered the patient not to be able to spread the virus. One of the complications was that his blue eye color turned green. Fortunately, for Dr. Crosier, treatment with steroids and antiviral agents allowed his eyes to return to normal. This unusual circumstance has suggested that follow-up eye exams are likely to be important in patients who survive Ebola infections.

What is the prognosis of Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

The prognosis of Ebola hemorrhagic fever is often poor; the death rate of this disease ranges from 50%-100%, and those who survive may experience the complications listed above. However, early diagnosis and treatment of Ebola may greatly increase the patient's chance for survival. Unfortunately, this disease has been mainly located in countries where medical care is often difficult to obtain, especially in rural areas of Africa. Current statistics available on the ongoing 2014-2015 outbreak (as of April 2016) of Ebola are summarized below:

  • Total suspected, probable, and confirmed infections worldwide equal 28,616, and total deaths equal 11,310 for a death rate or death toll of approximately 41%. An occasional new infection (at a low level) and deaths of current patients are unlikely to change these numbers substantially as the epidemic outbreak has ended according to the CDC. Fortunately, this epidemic of 2014-2016 did not become a pandemic but did show how rapidly a relatively rare disease like Ebola can rapidly infect a large number of individuals in this modern-day society.

Is it possible to prevent Ebola hemorrhagic fever? Is there an Ebola vaccine?

The main way to prevent getting Ebola hemorrhagic fever is to not travel to areas where it is endemic and by staying away from any patients who may have the disease. Medical caregivers may protect themselves from becoming affected by strict adherence to barriers to the virus (wearing gloves, gowns, goggles, and a mask).

Fortunately, in December 2016, researchers reported on a human clinical trial of rVSV-ZEBOV vaccine that was apparently effective and relatively safe for vaccination against Ebola disease. The researchers used people (contacts) exposed to Ebola patients during the outbreak in a trial following similar procedures ("ring of exposure") used to eliminate smallpox. The Ebola case exposure patient was randomly assigned to get the vaccine at day 0 or 21 days later after being identified as a new case exposure. Although many vaccinated people developed side effects of injection-site pain, mild headache, fatigue and muscle pain, most individuals recovered within a few days and none develop long-term problems. The study involved 11,841 people. The vaccine was 100% effective in patients who obtained the vaccine at day 0 and those day 0 individuals who had no symptoms within 10 days (due to the approximate average incubation period of Ebola). There were 23 new cases of Ebola in patients who got the vaccine 21 days later. Three adverse events occurred in the vaccinated population; one had a febrile reaction to the vaccine, one experienced anaphylaxis and one experienced flu or flu-like symptoms but all recovered and remained healthy. Consequently, this vaccine was considered by many investigators to be a safe and effective vaccine. There is a stockpile of 300,000 doses in reserve for future outbreaks.

What is the latest research on Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

Although a relatively safe and effective vaccine is now available to clinicians under certain conditions, research goes on. One problem is that the antibody generated against the glycoprotein in the vaccine may only be effective against one strain of Ebola, but not against the other strains. Readers should expect additional vaccines to become available in the not-too-distant future.

Where can people find more information about Ebola?

The following are several references that are updated periodically to provide recent information about Ebola viruses and Ebola disease:

  • World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs103/en/
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/about.html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: https://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/groups/index.html
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- 2014-2016 West Africa outbreak: https://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/2014-west-africa/

REFERENCES:

Energy and Commerce Committee. Update on the U.S. Public Health Response to the Ebola Outbreak. Tuesday, November 18, 2014.

Henao-Restrepo, Ana Maria, et al. "Efficacy and effectiveness of an rVSV-vectored vaccine in preventing Ebola virus disease: final results from the Guinea ring vaccination, open-label, cluster-randomised trial (Ebola Ça Suffit!)." The Lancet 389.10068 Feb. 4, 2017: 505-518.<http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)32621-6/fulltext>.

Regules, Jason A., et al. "A Recombinant Vesicular Stomatitis Virus Ebola Vaccine." NEJM 376 (2017): 330-341. <http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1414216>.

Samb, Saliou. "Scale of Guinea's Ebola epidemic unprecedented: aid agency." Reuters. Mar. 31, 2014. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/31/us-guinea-ebola-idUSBREA2U10E20140331>.

Switzerland. World Health Organization. "Final trial results confirm Ebola vaccine provides high protection against disease." Dec. 23, 2016. <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2016/ebola-vaccine-results/en/>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever." June 22, 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/index.html>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever: Chronology of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Outbreaks." Apr. 7, 2014. <http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/resources/outbreak-table.html>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Hospitalized Patients Under Investigation (PUIs) for Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in U.S. Hospitals." Feb. 12, 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/healthcare-us/hospitals/infection-control.html>.

Last Editorial Review: 2/27/2017

Reviewed on 2/27/2017
References
REFERENCES:

Energy and Commerce Committee. Update on the U.S. Public Health Response to the Ebola Outbreak. Tuesday, November 18, 2014.

Henao-Restrepo, Ana Maria, et al. "Efficacy and effectiveness of an rVSV-vectored vaccine in preventing Ebola virus disease: final results from the Guinea ring vaccination, open-label, cluster-randomised trial (Ebola Ça Suffit!)." The Lancet 389.10068 Feb. 4, 2017: 505-518.<http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)32621-6/fulltext>.

Regules, Jason A., et al. "A Recombinant Vesicular Stomatitis Virus Ebola Vaccine." NEJM 376 (2017): 330-341. <http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa1414216>.

Samb, Saliou. "Scale of Guinea's Ebola epidemic unprecedented: aid agency." Reuters. Mar. 31, 2014. <http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/31/us-guinea-ebola-idUSBREA2U10E20140331>.

Switzerland. World Health Organization. "Final trial results confirm Ebola vaccine provides high protection against disease." Dec. 23, 2016. <http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2016/ebola-vaccine-results/en/>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever." June 22, 2016. <http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/index.html>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever: Chronology of Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever Outbreaks." Apr. 7, 2014. <http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/resources/outbreak-table.html>.

United States. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Infection Prevention and Control Recommendations for Hospitalized Patients Under Investigation (PUIs) for Ebola Virus Disease (EVD) in U.S. Hospitals." Feb. 12, 2015. <http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/healthcare-us/hospitals/infection-control.html>.

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