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Ebola virus: What is it, how does it spread, and is there any hope if you fall ill?

Q. What is Ebola and where did it originate?

A. The disease is one of the most deadly found on Earth, with no proven cure or vaccine. It first appeared in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The latter was in a village near the Ebola River, from which the disease takes its name.

Q. How did people first become infected?

A. .Ebola is introduced into the human population through close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals. Fruit bats are considered to be the natural host of the Ebola virus.

Q Why is West Africa so badly affected?

A. Most outbreaks occur primarily in remote villages in Central and West Africa. They initially become infected by handling animals native to the area: chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines found ill or dead in the rainforest.

Q. How many people have died in the outbreak?

A. Around 2,500 people have been infected and 1,350 have died since the West African outbreak in March. Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria have been affected.

Q. How does the virus spread?

A. Ebola is transmitted from human to human through direct contact with infected people, their blood, bodily fluids or other secretions. This helps explain in part the rapid infection rate in Africa, where mourners often come into direct contact with the dead in burial ceremonies. It is not airborne.

Q. How long from infection can someone expect to experience symptoms?

A. The incubation period is two to 21 days. A patient is not contagious until he or she starts showing signs of the disease.

Q. What are the symptoms of those who contract it?

A. It is characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. Laboratory findings include low white blood cell and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes.

Q. How is it currently being treated?

A. There is no cure or vaccine, so patients are given basic supportive care to keep them hydrated, maintain their blood pressure and treat any complicating infections. Some patients are given experimental treatments.

Q. So, everyone who contracts it dies?

A. No. Outbreaks can have a fatality rate of up to 90%, although in West Africa it is around 60%.

Q. What treatment did the US aid worker who survived get?

A. He received an experimental, unproven treatment called Zmapp, but it's not known whether the drug helped him pull through or whether he and his fellow aid worker improved on their own. This has happened to others who have survived the disease.

Q. Does their survival mean the drug will work on others?

A. The treatment is so novel that it hasn't been properly tested in people. The limited supply of Zmapp was tried in a Spanish missionary priest, who died. But three Liberian health care workers are said to be improving.

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