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What Tourists in Africa Need to Know About the Risks of Ebola Exposure

Tim Boyer's picture

Last weekend, officials from Uganda’s Ministry of Health and the World Health Organization announced that the deadly Ebola virus has caused the deaths of 14 Ugandans this past month. Today, news reports tell us that six additional patients have been identified that are suspected of being infected with Ebola and that this highly infectious disease is spreading to other villages in the western regions of Uganda.

Ebola hemorrhagic fever is an especially lethal disease that is infamous for its history as a disease that can cause excessive bleeding from all orifices of the body and was the basis of a popular movie titled “Outbreak.” In Outbreak, the fictional town of Cedar Creek, California is ground zero for the first American emergence of Ebola hemorrhagic fever where military and civilian agencies duel over control and containment of the disease, placing the town’s inhabitants under martial law and a potential bombing to eradicate the disease and cover-up Ebola’s use as a potential militarized weapon.

The ease of spread of the disease and how the public and authorities would react to an Ebola epidemic in the U.S. were essentially the most controversial (and scariest) elements of the movie.

Be that as it may, Ebola has never reportedly claimed any American lives in the U.S. Although, according to the CDC, there have been three separate cases of Ebola-infected monkeys detected at animal quarantine facilities in the U.S., one of which resulted in 4 human infections that were asymptomatic.

Incidences of Ebola typically occur in sub-Saharan Africa with multiple reports of outbreaks over the past 36 years killing hundreds of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Gabon, the Ivory Coast and Uganda.

The source of the virus is believed to be from infected bats that then pass on the disease to primates used for bushmeat by locals. Eating Ebola-contaminated bushmeat then passes the virus onto humans who then pass it onto whoever they come into close contact. Exposure to an infected person’s bodily secretions such as urine, blood, semen, saliva etc. make it especially transmissible and thereby infectious for healthcare workers and close family members.

Symptoms of Ebola hemorrhagic fever begin approximately 7-10 days after exposure with a sudden onset of a sore throat, headache, fever, muscle and joint pain. Five to ten days after the initial symptoms, the disease progresses causing gastrointestinal problems, chest pain and measles-like rashes where skin begins to slough off in patches. Bleeding from the orifices begins during this time in some—but not all—people infected. Mortality ranges from 50 to 90 percent.

There is no known specific treatment or cure for an Ebola infection. Under a best case scenario an infected individual makes it to a relatively modern hospital that has an intensive care unit where maintaining fluid and oxygen levels can be maintained until the individual either recovers or succumbs to the disease.

Part of the problem with Ebola is that its early symptoms are indistinguishable from numerous other diseases and therefore is typically not identified until much later when it manifests as an outbreak. Therefore, by the time it is identified, numerous contacts between infected and non-infected individuals rapidly escalates before health authorities can trace and quarantine those infected and potentially infected.

Another problem is that developing regions in Africa do not typically possess the scientific equipment needed to make a rapid diagnosis in suspect infections. Rather, the local health authorities are delayed with serological tests that scan for Ebola antibodies in blood—which are not present until the disease has progressed.

The good news is that in comparison to a significant number of other lethal and injurious diseases residing in Africa, contracting Ebola is a relatively rare event and typically initially isolated to small, out-of-the-way destinations not frequented by tourists. However, because aid workers and health personnel do frequent such locales and then return to larger more-metropolitan areas, infection and spread is a very real concern.

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Precautions for travelers visiting Africa include:

• Checking ahead of time to see when and where was the last time an Ebola outbreak was reported and the result of the epidemic.

• Checking to see if any regions within driving distance of your destination have reported any suspected Ebola incidences lately.

• Not accepting bushmeat or anything that may be bushmeat from a vendor or restaurant in a town or village.

• Not petting or otherwise touching any primate or its carcass.

• Not entering any caves or mines in regions that have a history of Ebola virus.

• Carrying medical masks and gloves just in case you wind up in a crowded area such as a bus with a fellow passenger who appears to be ill.

• Washing your hands thoroughly and often.

Image Source: Courtesy of MorgueFile

CDC: What is Ebola hemorrhagic fever?

CDC: Known cases and outbreaks of Ebola hemorrhagic fever

Mayo Clinic: Ebola Virus and Marburg Virus Prevention