The Grapevine

Ebola Virus: What Happens To Your Body If You Are Infected

According to health officials, three patients infected with the Ebola virus fled from a hospital isolation ward in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The current outbreak was first declared by the Ministry of Health of the DRC on May 8. 

"The next few weeks will really tell if this outbreak is going to expand to urban areas or if we’re going to be able to keep it under control," said Dr. Peter Salama, the World Health Organization's (WHO) emergency response chief. "We’re on the epidemiological knife edge of this response."

The Ebola virus

The virus causes Ebola Virus Disease (EVD), a type of viral hemorrhagic fever characterized by high body temperature and bleeding as the name suggests. The disease was first identified in 1976 during outbreaks in the African villages Nzara, South Sudan, and Yambuku, DRC.

The Ebola virus can be transmitted through direct contact with the blood and body fluids of an infected person. It can be spread through sexual intercourse, use of contaminated needles, or contact with infected fruit bats and nonhuman primates. There is no scientific evidence that the virus can be transmitted through the air.

Initial flu-like signs

There may be a challenge in identifying Ebola early on as the symptoms in the infected patient may not be distinctive from other illnesses. After the virus has infected the body, it can take between 2 to 21 days for symptoms to start appearing. First, the body will experience a sudden onset of fever, headaches, vomiting, muscle ache, and diarrhea.

"Of course, these overlap with a number of far more common diagnoses found in Africa, such as malaria and typhoid fever," explained Dr. Anita McElroy, a pediatric infectious disease specialist in Atlanta, Georgia.

"Some other signs and symptoms that have been reported include hiccups, abdominal pain, sore throat, and an erythematous maculopapular rash that is more likely to be apparent in lighter-skinned individuals," she added.

Bleeding and organ-failure

As the illness progresses, patients can become bedridden due to fatigue. Five to seven days after symptoms begin, some patients may experience internal as well as external bleeding as the virus damages the lining of blood vessels. Bleeding may occur from the eyes, nose, needle injection sites, or other orifices.

The immune system directly attacks certain organs of the body or releases inflammatory molecules. Adrenal glands suffer damage which can lead to dangerously low blood pressure and hormone disruption. Fluid accumulates in the brain and connective tissues continue to be attacked.

Death or recovery

In terminal cases, the patient dies due to excessive bleeding (which can be seen in the whites of the eyes, vomit, diarrhea etc.), low blood pressure from fluid loss, multiple organ failures, or the shock of severe infection.

If the patient is able to recover with the help of efficient supportive care, the process may begin between 7 and 14 days after initial symptoms. While rehydration is an important factor, a study also suggested that certain gene variants and higher levels of activated T cells may help recovery.

In the midst of the current outbreak, administration of experimental Ebola vaccines began in DRC on May 21. Dr. Salama called it "an important moment that changes the way we've seen Ebola for 40 years."