What is Ebola?

It's one of the world's deadliest viruses—and so far, there's no cure.

Ebola is a virus that kills as many as 90 percent of those it infects. It is transmitted to humans from wild animals and spreads through contact with infected bodily fluids or organs.

The virus, first identified in 1976, is most common in Central and West Africa. The biggest Ebola outbreak in history erupted in early 2014 and was still spreading as of July 2014.

What effects does Ebola have on the body?

The Ebola virus. (Photo: Kallista Images/Getty Images)

Symptoms may develop as soon as two days, or as late as 21 days, after infection. Victims experience the sudden onset of fever, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, or fatigue. Vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and impaired kidney or liver function can all follow. The body’s number of platelets—blood-clotting cells—takes a nosedive, causing internal or external bleeding.

Researchers are still trying to ascertain how Ebola originated, exactly how it spreads, and how to stop it. They know that people can be infected by coming into contact with sick or dead animals, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, and monkeys, that were infected in the forest. Humans can then pass along the virus by exchanging bodily fluids. Additionally, burial rituals in some communities, in which people have direct contact with a deceased person, may also spread Ebola.

Why has Ebola been in the news recently?

As of July 2014, around 800 cases of Ebola have been reported during this latest outbreak, which began in February 2014. It’s spreading through West African countries including Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Doctors Without Borders has described the situation as “out of control.”

Ebola: Challenges and Controversy

Several factors make this latest Ebola outbreak particularly worrisome.

First, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are among the world’s poorest countries. That means that the countries struck by this crippling disease are also among the least prepared for it.

Second, this particular Ebola outbreak has seen reported cases in cities where there are lots of people. There’s concern that travelers could spread the virus far and wide. Medical teams have been deployed to look for symptoms among passengers in the international airport in Conakry, the capital of Guinea.

Deep-seated environmental problems in the area might also be playing a role in the spread of Ebola. Some researchers posit that deforestation in West Africa is driving up the risk of infections, as the habitats for animals such as the fruit bat (a chief Ebola carrier) are shrinking, bringing them into closer contact with humans.

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