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Ebola: What it is and how it spreads

By Sola Ogundipe
The current Ebola Virus Disease outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, is spreading.

A snapshot of a US Centres for Disease Control infographic outlining how Ebola spreads.

Latest reports indicate that the infection has spread from the traditional rural areas to urban centres.

However, the World Health Organisation, WHO has not declared a global Ebola epidemic because the outbreak has not crossed international borders.

Since 1976, the DRC (then known as Zaire) has experienced a total of nine Ebola outbreaks.

But the WHO is not taking chances and has warned that the disease could spread even further.  Nigeria and nine other African countries are  at moderate risk.

What is Ebola Virus Disease?

The Ebola Virus Disease is a serious, often fatal condition in humans and non-human primates. It is one of several viral haemorrhagic (bleeding) fevers, caused by infection with a virus of the Filoviridae family, genus Ebolavirus.

Ebola is considered a zoonotic virus, meaning that it originated in animals and then spread to humans.

First discovered in 1976, Since then, the Ebola virus has periodically spread through parts of Africa, killing thousands in the process.

The Ebola virus resides within  the fruit bat  that is native to West and Central Africa. The bats are carriers of the virus but are unaffected by it.

While cooking infected meat kills the virus, handling of the meat beforehand can cause infection.

Although there is now an effective vaccine, Ebola  has a fast onset and its horrifying  symptoms has earned it a place among world’s most feared diseases.

The time from exposure to when signs or symptoms of the disease appear (incubation period) is two to 21 days but the average time is eight to 10 days.

Signs of Ebola infection

It begins with fever – higher than 38.6 degrees Celsius – and symptoms like severe headache, muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, or unexplained bleeding or bruising.

How Ebola spreads

You can get Ebola from direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infectious person. This is the main method of transmission. With Ebola, the most infectious bodily fluids are blood, faeces and vomit.

A snapshot of a US Centres for Disease Control infographic outlining how Ebola can’t spread.

Infection can also occur through touching contaminated objects or touching or eating infected animals.

You can get Ebola if the blood, saliva, sweat, vomit, urine, semen or other bodily fluids of a sick person comes into direct contact with your broken skin or mucous membranes such as the mouth, nose, eyes or vagina.

Kissing, sharing food or having sex with an infectious person all provide potential for transmission. Needles are also a risk factor.

You can get Ebola from touching an infected surface because the Ebola virus can survive outside the body, so coming into direct contact with infected bodily fluids on surfaces such as bedding, clothing or furniture and then touching your eyes or mouth can spread the disease.

Ebola on dried surfaces such as doorknobs and countertops can survive for several hours, however the virus in body fluids such as blood can survive up to several days at room temperature.

The virus can also survive on the skin of an infected person for several days, even after their death.

Note that the Ebola virus is easily killed with hospital-grade disinfectants, such as household bleach.

How Ebola does NOT spread

Ebola does not spread through the air or through water or through air. It is not an airborne disease like influenza or chicken pox.


You cannot get Ebola through water because the Ebola virus does not contaminate water supplies like cholera or dysentery.

You cannot get Ebola from someone who is not already sick with the disease.

The virus only appears in people’s bodily fluids after they have developed the  symptoms, so someone that is a ‘carrier’ of the virus  cannot unknowingly spread it before feeling sick.

You cannot get Ebola from mosquitoes. There is no scientific evidence that mosquitoes or other insects can transmit Ebola virus. Only mammals such as  humans, bats, monkeys and apes have shown  ability to spread and become infected with Ebola virus.

You cannot get Ebola from properly cooked food. Although the Ebola virus has spread through the hunting, butchering and preparation of bush meat,  it can’t be transmitted through properly cooked food because the virus is inactivated through cooking,according to the WHO.

If a person recovers from Ebola sexual contact  remains risky. Men who have recovered from the disease can still transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven weeks after recovery from illness.



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