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Is Ebola Infection Treatable?

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 6/30/2009

The Ebola virus causes an infection known as a hemorrhagic fever. This type of infection is characterized by high fever and progressive, unstoppable internal bleeding. Currently there are few effective treatments for Ebola infection.

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    Ebola is a member of the family of viruses known as Filoviridae. The viruses are named for their filamentous appearance under the microscope. There are four subtypes of Ebola virus, but whether they are truly subtypes or are actually separate species has not been determined.

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    Ebola Symptoms

    People who have become infected with the Ebola virus typically experience an incubation period of between two and 21 days. Following the incubation period they experience flu-like symptoms which include high fever, muscle and joint pain, weakness, fatigue, sore throat, and dizziness.

    These initial symptoms are followed by the onset of more serious, which include massive internal and external bleeding and massive organ damage. Death is usually due to blood loss.

    Between 50% and 90% of people who are infected with the Ebola virus will die, depending on the subtype they are infected with.

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    Treatment for Ebola

    Ebola virus is not yet preventable via vaccine. A vaccine currently under development has been shown to protect monkeys from the disease. However, the vaccine cannot protect humans from Ebola infection unless the patient is vaccinated no more than four days after the onset of symptoms. After this time the virus has done so much irreparable damage to the body that vaccination will make no difference to the patient’s prognosis. Another problem with vaccine development is that Ebola is an RNA virus, and therefore has a high chance of spontaneously mutating such that a vaccine is no longer effective.

    As of 2009 the vaccine is still under development. The only method of prevention is to avoid contact with an infected person, and take all possible precautions to prevent coming into contact with infected body fluids.

    Currently there are also no standard treatments for Ebola infection. Most treatments provide supportive care only. Possible treatments include replacing lost blood and blood proteins, keeping electrolyte levels balanced, and treating complications.

    Treating patients with polyclonal antibodies from a person who has previously recovered from Ebola is effective in some cases. Another strategy which has been effective is to raise Ebola-specific antibodies in goats, and use these to treat people with the infection. As with the vaccination strategy, treatment must be administered before widespread damage is done to the body.

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    References

    Centers for Disease Control Special Pathogens Branch Ebola Information

    John W King, MD. Ebola Virus information at eMedicine

    World Health Organization Ebola Fact Sheet