Ebola virus: How worried should we be?


Ebola virus evokes fear in many people, mainly because it’s associated with images of victims bleeding from the ears and nose, being quarantined and surrounded by health workers in protective suits. Who wouldn’t be scared? But what exactly is the Ebola virus, and with the largest outbreak in history hitting the headlines every day, how worried should we be about it spreading to other countries?

The Ebola virus got its name from the Ebola river in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the first outbreak occurred in 1976. This was the last time that more than 200 deaths occurred; 280 compared to the current >700. The natural reservoir of the virus – where it hides in between outbreaks – is thought to be the fruit bat, which shows no symptoms. Transmission to humans usually comes from eating or handling infected animals. Symptoms show after 2-21 days of exposure to the virus, starting with fever and flu-like symptoms which make it hard to identify. As the infection progresses, the virus wreaks havoc, interfering with organ function and blood vessel integrity, resulting in internal bleeding and a mortality rate of up to 90% if left untreated.

Luckily, the virus is easier to control than other viruses such as influenza and measles as it’s not transmitted via air, and instead through bodily fluids and close contact. To give you an idea of how infectious it is, measles has an R0 value (the number of cases generated from one infected person) of 12-18, and Ebola 1-4.

Outbreaks can be contained with adequate healthcare and facilities, which impoverished regions of the current outbreak don’t have. This has hampered control and facilitated spread of the virus. If the virus did enter the UK, we have vigilant health workers looking for early signs of infection and well-equipped hospitals which would make spread of the virus, which is hard to catch anyway, too difficult.