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The Ebola virus causes an acute, serious illness which is often fatal if untreated. EVD first appeared in 1976 in 2 simultaneous outbreaks, one in what is now Nzara, South Sudan, and the other in Yambuku, DRC. The latter occurred in a village near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.
The 2014–2016 outbreak in West Africa was the largest Ebola outbreak since the virus was first discovered in 1976. The outbreak started in Guinea and then moved across land borders to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The current 2018-2019 outbreak in eastern DRC is highly complex, with insecurity adversely affecting public health response activities.
The virus family Filoviridae includes three genera: Cuevavirus, Marburgvirus, and Ebolavirus. Within the genus Ebolavirus, six species have been identified: Zaire, Bundibugyo, Sudan, Taï Forest, Reston and Bombali. The virus causing the current outbreak in DRC and the 2014–2016 West African outbreak belongs to the Zaire ebolavirus species.
It is thought that fruit bats of the Pteropodidae family are natural Ebola virus hosts. Ebola is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals such as fruit bats, chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope or porcupines found ill or dead or in the rainforest.
Ebola then spreads through human-to-human transmission via direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with:
- Blood or body fluids of a person who is sick with or has died from Ebola
- Objects that have been contaminated with body fluids (like blood, feces, vomit) from a person sick with Ebola or the body of a person who died from Ebola
Health-care workers have frequently been infected while treating patients with suspected or confirmed EVD. This occurs through close contact with patients when infection control precautions are not strictly practiced.
Burial ceremonies that involve direct contact with the body of the deceased can also contribute in the transmission of Ebola.
People remain infectious as long as their blood contains the virus.
Pregnant women who get acute Ebola and recover from the disease may still carry the virus in breastmilk, or in pregnancy related fluids and tissues. This poses a risk of transmission to the baby they carry, and to others. Women who become pregnant after surviving Ebola disease are not at risk of carrying the virus.
If a breastfeeding woman who is recovering from Ebola wishes to continue breastfeeding, she should be supported to do so. Her breast milk needs to be tested for Ebola before she can start.