What is Ebola?
Ebola is a virus that can cause a severe, and often fatal, haemorrhagic disease in humans. The term “Ebola” may be used to refer to the Ebola virus itself, or the severe disease it causes (called Ebola Virus Disease, or EVD).
2014-16 West African Ebola virus outbreak
Between 2014 and 2016, a major Ebola virus outbreak occurred in several countries in West Africa. This event was the worst Ebola virus outbreak in history and caused major loss of life in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.
In August 2014, in accordance with the International Health Regulations 2005, the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern associated with the West African Ebola virus outbreak.
Following significant domestic and international response efforts, in March 2016, satisfied that countries have the capacity to rapidly respond to new virus emergencies and that the risk of international spread is low, the Director-General of the WHO terminated the Public Health Emergency of International Concern regarding the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa.
Ebola virus is still present in wild animal populations in West Africa and may sporadically infect clusters of humans. However, countries are now able to rapidly identify and respond to cases of human infection and limit transmission.
Is Australia at risk?
The risk of Ebola virus spreading to the Australian public is extremely low. Ebola virus has never been recorded in Australia.
Australia has robust border protection and public health measures to detect and rapidly respond to any potential case of EVD in Australia.
Ebola virus is not present in Australian animal populations. Australia has strict quarantine laws which prevent infected animals arriving.
What are the symptoms of Ebola Virus Disease?
- The first symptoms of the disease include fever, along with muscle aches, headache, weakness and fatigue.
- Later symptoms include vomiting and diarrhoea, headaches and confusion, bruising, rash, sore throat, cough, prostration and malfunction of liver and kidneys.
- Some cases progress to multi-organ failure with internal and external bleeding. Between 50 to 90 per cent of cases are fatal.
How is Ebola virus spread?
Ebola virus exists in certain animal populations, such as fruit bats, chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, and forest antelope.
Humans may acquire Ebola virus from animals through close contact with blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of infected animals (for example, hunting animals for food).
Once in the human population, Ebola virus further spreads between people by close contact with blood, secretions, or bodily fluids of infected people, including through sexual contact. People who have been infected with Ebola virus can remain infectious for several weeks after recovery or death.
Ebola virus can survive outside of the body for some time, which means that it can be spread between humans through contact with environments contaminated with fluids of infected people, including in healthcare settings.
Ebola virus is not airborne and cannot be caught by breathing air in proximity to a person with EVD.
How is Ebola Virus Disease prevented?
Practising good hygiene and implementing strong infection control measures around cases of EVD are the most effective ways to prevent further spread.
Close contact with animals and eating or handling raw or undercooked animal products should be avoided in countries where Ebola virus exists in animal populations.
As of late 2017, there is no routine vaccine for Ebola virus. Following the 2014-16 West African Ebola virus outbreak, experimental vaccines have been developed and trialled for potential use in emergency situations and at-risk populations, but these experimental vaccines are not yet widely available and not for general use.
How is Ebola virus diagnosed?
A blood test can diagnose Ebola virus.
How is Ebola Virus Disease treated?
There is no specific treatment for people who are sick with Ebola Virus Disease. Treatment consists of intensive supportive medical care. Early intervention can be life-saving.
What should I do if I become unwell with EVD symptoms when travelling in areas known to have animals with Ebola virus?
Seek immediate medical assistance and visit the local emergency department.
What countries should be considered at-risk for Ebola virus?
Ebola virus is naturally found in animals in several African countries. The Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade operates the Smartraveller website which provides country-specific advice and should be consulted before travelling overseas.
Health professionals travelling to African countries should ensure they are familiar with and adhere to strict hygiene and isolation recommendations, and ensure personal protective equipment is used for any suspected EVD cases.
What advice on Ebola virus is available to health professionals?
If you are dealing with a suspected case of EVD, contact your state or territory’s public health unit.
The Australian Government Department of Health has several guidance resources available for health professionals:
- Infection prevention and control principles and recommendations for Ebola Virus Disease (pdf) (word)
- Ebolavirus Series of National Guidelines for Public Health Units (pdf) (word)
- Public Health Laboratory Network Information for Laboratories
The following resources for primary care professionals were developed in response to the 2014-16 West Africa Ebola virus outbreak. These documents remain available here for general guidance in a primary care context, but contain out-of-date references to the outbreak and should no longer be considered current: