So a case of Ebola has been confirmed in a nurse who has returned from working with patients in Africa. And right on cue, there has been widespread speculation and worry as people grow increasingly concerned about what it could mean for the rest of the country.
Luckily, the reality is we need not panic as the risk to the rest of the population is negligible. And here’s why…
What is Ebola?
Ebola is a viral infection. It’s classified as one of the ‘viral hemorrhagic fevers’, basically because it does just that. It causes fever, makes you very unwell and eventually makes you bleed out - the death rate is at least 50%. So it’s serious IF you have it.
The current Ebola outbreak started in Africa early on in 2014, but the world largely ignored it until around September. So far, estimates put the number of cases worldwide at over 19,000, and it’s thought to have caused around 7,500 deaths. Almost all of these have been in the 3 most affected African countries: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. There have only been a handful of deaths outside Africa (and none in the UK so far).
Who is at risk?
Anyone who has travelled to the 3 affected regions in Africa and has been in close contact with the blood/bodily fluids of someone in the later stages of Ebola is at risk. So that’s a pretty specific set of circumstances! It’s not airborne, so you’re not going to catch it walking past someone in the street!
In fact, Ebola is very difficult to catch - flu is actually far more contagious and causes many more deaths worldwide. Using proper protective equipment and simple hand-washing with soap and water will help control spread. That puts it into perspective.
What are the symptoms?
Symptoms of Ebola are similar to many other viruses, but develop quite suddenly and become severe. They include: fever, headache, joint and muscle pains, sore throat, severe muscle weakness, diarrhoea and vomiting, and bleeding. They can develop anywhere between 2-21 days after you become infected, but commonly start between 5-7 days. So if you’ve been potentially infected and don’t develop symptoms within 21 days, you’re not infected!
How is it diagnosed?
Anyone who is at risk from Ebola should be evaluated by a medical professional and a decision made as to whether they might have it. Remember, someone returning from Africa is more likely to have one of the other infections, like malaria, than Ebola.
Yes we have 'screening' at airports, but it will only pick up people who have symptoms. The good thing is it makes people think about whether they might be at risk.
If it is a possibility, samples of blood or bodily fluids can be sent to a laboratory to be tested, and we can usually get the results quite quickly. Whilst waiting for the results, the person needs to minimise contact with others. If the result is positive then they need to be transferred to a special unit for treatment. If it is negative, then they may be tested for the other infections.
Remember, we've actually been testing potential cases for months and none have come up positive so far!
Can it be treated?
At the moment we don’t have a licensed treatment for Ebola. Anyone affected is transferred to a special unit to receive specialised care to support them through the infection - and that could include intensive care. There are various treatments being tested at the moment, but we don’t know if they are effective and they aren’t widely available for use yet.
Why is is considered a low risk for the UK?
We have always expected a handful of cases of Ebola in the UK, so it’s no surprise. But the risk to the general population is VERY LOW and we won’t have a situation like that in Africa. That’s because:
1) Ebola is actually very difficult to catch.
2) You’re only infectious when you have symptoms, so if you’re travelling without symptoms you’re not going to spread it around.
3) We have an excellent healthcare system in the UK and extremely effective infection control measures.
4) Airline and NHS staff have all been prepped about how to deal with possible cases, so we are ready for it.
5) Our health beliefs and behaviour in this country are very different to the affected parts of Africa.
It's important that we take some responsibility ourselves and not travel to affected regions unless absolutely necessary.
What should you do if you think you are infected?
You are only likely to be infected if you have been to an affected area, have had close contact with someone with Ebola and have developed symptoms. If you think you are, then stay at home and call NHS 111 for advice (unless it’s an absolute emergency, in which case call 999). There are set protocols about how to deal with potential cases and it’s better for medical services to be warned and prepared when dealing with them.
But remember, the general public DOES NOT NEED TO PANIC BECAUSE THE VAST MAJORITY OF US WON’T BE AFFECTED!
For accurate and up-to-date information on Ebola, check out the NHS Choices website.