Ebola virus disease: an overview
Ebola virus disease is a serious illness that originated in Africa, where there is currently an outbreak. But for people living in countries outside Africa, it continues to be a very low threat.
The current outbreak of the Ebola virus mainly affects three countries in West Africa: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Around 27,000 cases and more than 11,000 deaths have been reported by the World Health Organization. This is the largest known outbreak of Ebola.
Experts studying the virus believe it is highly unlikely the disease would spread within the UK. To understand why, read Why is the risk low for people in the UK?
What are the symptoms, and what should I do if I think I'm infected?
A person infected with Ebola virus will typically develop a fever, headache, joint and muscle pain, a sore throat, and intense muscle weakness.
These symptoms start suddenly, between two and 21 days after becoming infected.
If you feel unwell with the above symptoms within 21 days of coming back from Guinea, Liberia or Sierra Leone, you should stay at home and immediately telephone 111 or 999 and explain that you have recently visited West Africa.
These services will provide advice and arrange for you to be seen in a hospital if necessary so the cause of your illness can be determined.
It's really important that medical services are expecting your arrival and calling 111 or 999 will ensure this happens.
Read more about the symptoms of Ebola virus disease.
How does Ebola spread among people?
People can become infected with the Ebola virus if they come into contact with the blood, body fluids or organs of an infected person.
Most people are infected by giving care to other infected people, either by directly touching the victim's body or by cleaning up body fluids (stools, urine or vomit) that carry infectious blood.
Read more information about how Ebola spreads, and how the outbreak started.
Who is at risk, and how can we prevent its spread?
Anyone who cares for an infected person or handles their blood or fluid samples is at risk of becoming infected. Hospital workers, laboratory workers and family members are at greatest risk.
Strict infection control procedures and wearing protective clothing minimises this risk – see preventing the spread of Ebola virus for more information. Simply washing hands with soap and water can destroy the virus.
How is Ebola virus disease treated?
There's currently no licensed treatment or vaccine for Ebola virus disease, although potential new vaccines and drug therapies are being developed and tested.
Patients diagnosed with Ebola virus disease are placed in isolation in intensive care, where their blood oxygen levels and blood pressure are maintained at the right level and their body organs supported. Read more information about how Ebola virus disease is treated.
Healthcare workers need to avoid contact with the bodily fluids of their infected patients by taking strict precautions.
ZMapp is an experimental treatment that can be tried, although it has not yet been tested in humans for safety or effectiveness. The product is a combination of three different antibodies that bind to the protein of the Ebola virus.
How is it diagnosed?
It's difficult to know if a patient is infected with Ebola virus in the early stages as symptoms such as fever, headache and muscle pain are similar to those of many other diseases.
But specialist infection clinicians will make expert judgements on what the most likely diagnosis is, based on the patient’s history.
If Ebola is considered a possibility on this basis, then a person would be tested for the disease.
Samples of blood or body fluid can be sent to a laboratory to be tested for the presence of Ebola virus, and a diagnosis can be made rapidly.
A person suspected of having Ebola would be isolated to minimise contact with other people while they are being tested. It is only if this test is positive that the case is considered to be ‘confirmed’.
If the test is positive, they will be transferred to a hospital high-level isolation unit.
If the result is negative, doctors will test for other diseases such as malaria, typhoid fever and cholera.
Why is the risk low for people in the UK?
The likelihood of catching Ebola virus disease is considered very low unless you've travelled to a known infected area and had direct contact with a person with Ebola-like symptoms, or had contact with an infected animal or contaminated objects.
Not easily transmitted
While it is possible people infected with Ebola could arrive in the UK on a plane, the virus is not as easily transmitted as a respiratory virus such as influenza.
Only infectious when symptoms start
People infected with Ebola do not become infectious until they have developed symptoms, such as a fever. The disease then progresses very rapidly. This means infectious people do not walk around spreading the disease for a long period.
It typically takes five to seven days for symptoms to develop after infection, so there is time to identify people who may have been exposed, put them under surveillance and, if they show symptoms, quarantine them.
Effective infection control procedures
In past outbreaks, infection control measures have been very effective in containing Ebola within the immediate area. The UK has a robust public health system with the trained staff and facilities necessary to contain cases of Ebola.
Training and awareness
Public Health England has advised frontline medical practitioners to be alert to Ebola in those returning from affected areas.
Advice has been issued to the Border Force to identify possible cases of Ebola and there are procedures in place to provide care to the patient and to minimise public health risk to others.
Flight crew are trained to respond swiftly to any passengers who develop symptoms during a flight from Africa. They will take measures to reduce transmission on board the plane. But this event is very unlikely, and so far there have been no documented cases of people catching the disease simply by being in the same plane as an Ebola victim.
Symptoms of Ebola virus disease
How Ebola virus disease spreads
Diagnosing Ebola virus disease
Treating Ebola virus disease
Preventing the spread of Ebola virus disease
Page last reviewed: 24/03/2015
Next review due: 24/03/2017