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How Ebola Works

Detection, Treatment and Prevention of Ebola

Detection of Ebola can be a little tricky before an outbreak is known to have started. The early symptoms are often confused with other diseases, and by the time the illness is identified as Ebola, it can be too late to do anything. The most accurate tests for Ebola are those that use specialized equipment that is hard to take into the remote locations where the virus is most prevalent. These tests, like the ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbant assay) test, generally look for antibodies for the Ebola virus instead of looking directly for the virus itself.

Aside from difficulties in bringing the test equipment into remote African villages, these tests are problematic in that a key feature of filoviruses is that they suppress immune systems. So even if someone is infected with Ebola, the virus may have suppressed the immune system enough that they were not able to develop any antibodies against it. Another powerful test known as PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, identifies the virus directly, which is a plus. However, not only is it hard to take into the field, it's also very sensitive to contamination, and the middle of an outbreak doesn't tend to be the most contaminant-free location.

At this point, though, even if a patient is identified to be infected with Ebola, there really isn't much that can be done other than basic interventions (IV fluids, maintaining oxygen and blood pressure, and treating other infections as they occur). With this type of care, patients have been known to recover from the virus. Some experimental treatment options such as a drug called ZMapp have been developed, but these products are still in the experimental phase and have not been totally approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for safety or effectiveness. The best we can do once we know that an Ebola virus is on the loose in a region is to educate health care workers and members of the community in the outbreak on how best to reduce transmission.

So that may lead you to ask, Why wait until an outbreak to do something to fight Ebola? Can we get a vaccine? Good question! Because the number of victims has been so low (relative to other diseases) and the outbreaks tend to happen in remote parts of the world where it is difficult to administer vaccines, there hasn't been much industrial support for creating one. However, the spread of the 2014 outbreak outside of Africa is changing attitudes toward the need for a vaccine. This, along with the threat to the great ape population and the fear that Ebola could be used in an act of bioterrorism has spurred scientists to start working on one. So far, scientists have discovered a vaccine that protects monkeys from the ruthless virus, but that hasn't translated into a vaccine for humans just yet. Promising findings do suggest that a suitable vaccine for humans can be developed and early stages of human testing are underway.

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