The National Academies

The National Academies: What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

What You Need To Know About Infectious Disease

Ebola Virus Disease

Ebola virus disease, formerly known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a serious disease that is spread by an RNA virus in the family Filoviridae. The disease is named after a river in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Five subtypes have been identified, four of which cause disease in humans. Although the exact origin of the virus is unknown, scientists think that it probably came from a primate native to Africa, such as a monkey, gorilla, or chimpanzee. In addition to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, outbreaks have been reported in Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, and the Republic of the Congo. An outbreak first reported in 2014—the largest and most complex—occurred in West Africa, with Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone the most seriously affected countries.

Although scientists hypothesize that the first human got the virus through contact with an infected animal, in recent cases, humans have been infected through contact with an infected person, his or her body fluids, and even contaminated clothing or objects, such as needles. Ebola can also be transmitted during burial ceremonies that involve contact with an infected dead person. For these reasons, the virus can spread easily through families who are caring for a sick person or burying a loved one who has died.

The virus has an incubation period of 2 to 21 days and then can progress quickly. Early symptoms include fever and headache, joint and muscle aches, sore throat, and weakness. These symptoms are followed by diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach pain. In some cases, the patient may experience a rash, red eyes, hiccups, and internal and external bleeding.

Symptoms of Ebola, as well as complications, should be treated as they appear. When started early, providing intravenous fluids, balancing electrolytes, and maintaining oxygen status and blood pressure can improve survival significantly. It is also important to treat other infections if they occur.

Although an effective, targeted treatment has not yet been found, many are under investigation. These include both drug and immune therapies. Two potential vaccines are currently undergoing safety testing.

People traveling to an area that has been infected by Ebola should wash their hands frequently and avoiding contact with blood and other body fluids; avoiding contact with objects that an infected person has had contact with, such as bedding; staying away from funeral and burial rites that require contact with a person who has died from Ebola; avoiding contact with animals known to carry Ebola and raw meat prepared from those animals; and staying away from facilities where Ebola patients are being treated. After returning home, travelers should monitor their health for 21 days and seek medical help immediately if any symptoms of Ebola emerge.

Health care workers should wear protective clothing, including masks, goggles, gloves, and gowns. In addition, all equipment used to treat patients must be sterilized. It is important to avoid direct, unprotected contact with the blood of body fluids of a person infected with Ebola and to contact health officials in the event of unprotected contact.


Explore Other Topics

What do you know about infectious disease?

True or False: Antibiotics work by introducing an agent that resembles a disease-causing microbe, thus stimulating the body's immune system to recognize it as foreign, destroy it, and "remember" it, so that it can more easily identify and destroy any similar, disease-causing microbes that it later encounters.

  • Sorry, that’s incorrect.

    The above describes how vaccines work. Antibiotics work by either killing bacteria or stopping them from reproducing, allowing the body's natural defenses to eliminate the pathogens.

  • Correct!

    The above describes how vaccines work. Antibiotics work by either killing bacteria or stopping them from reproducing, allowing the body's natural defenses to eliminate the pathogens.

Infectious Disease Defined


A branch of science that deals with the relation of organisms to one another and their physical environment.

View our full glossary