How Ebola Works


As the number of cases of Ebola virus disease continues to rise, flight restrictions are put in place and the media frenzy continues, you may be asking yourself: What is Ebola and how does it work?

The Ebola virus causes viral hemorrhagic fever, which according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), refers to a group of viruses that affect multiple organ systems in the body and are often accompanied by bleeding. Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, is a severe, often fatal illness in humans. Ebola first appeared in 1976 in two simultaneous outbreaks, in Nzara, Sudan, and in Yambuku, Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was in a village situated near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.

Ebola spreads in the community through human-to-human transmission, with infection resulting from direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected people, and indirect contact with environments contaminated with such fluids. Burial ceremonies in which mourners have direct contact with the body of the deceased person can also play a role in the transmission of Ebola.

Each strain of the Ebola virus operates similarly. In fact, they work in standard virus fashion, hanging around in some sort of reservoir or host and waiting for a vulnerable cell to come along so they can infect it. Moreover, while scientists do not know all the details of how Ebola works in the body, they have compiled a handful of facts.

The Ebola virus is related to the viruses that cause measles and mumps, the paramyxovirus family. The genetic information stored in the RNA codes for only seven proteins (the molecules in the cell do most of the work in the organism), as compared to about 20,000 for humans. One of these proteins is suspected to be the superpower of the villainous Ebola: glycoprotein. One version of this protein binds to host cells, so the virus can enter and replicate, and the other version is released from infected cells and may play a role in suppressing the immune system. The virus is impartial and will infect a wide range of cell types in our bodies, but early on, Ebola typically invades cells associated with our immune systems, namely monocytes, macrophages and dendritic cells. After that early infection, it travels to the lymph nodes, spleen and liver through the blood. Just like other viruses, once Ebola infects our cells, it triggers the release of a bunch of different types of chemicals that cause the terrible symptoms associated with the disease.

How to protect ourselves?

Doctors all over the world advise to wear impermeable gowns and gloves, and to wear facial protection such as goggles or a medical mask to prevent splashes to the nose, mouth and eyes.


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