The Ebola virus disease originally appeared on the world stage in 1976 when not one, but two simultaneous outbreaks hit two different areas in Africa. Over the next three and a half decades around 2000 people were killed by this deadly virus. Now, if you have been watching the news lately you know that a new Ebola outbreak is currently ravaging West Africa. Even with a lower mortality rate of only about 60% compared to as high as 90% in previous outbreaks, over 2500 people have already lost their lives, making this the deadliest Ebola virus outbreak in world history. Three American hospitals, located in New York City, have had to isolate and test potential Ebola cases already with the most recent case at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. All patients presented with early Ebola-like symptoms and several had recently traveled in West Africa. Fortunately, according to the New York Times, none of these individuals tested positive for the virus.
However, if people do get infected with the Ebola virus, what are the chances of recovering from this disease and how long does this process last?
The World Health Organization (WHO) states that the Ebola virus is "a severe, often fatal illness, with a case fatality rate of up to 90%." However, the death rate can be as low as 50% if prompt diagnosis is made and the proper supportive care/ treatment is given.
The early symptoms include but are not limited to: sudden onset of fever, generalized weakness, muscle pains, chills, headaches and sore throat. As the disease progresses, the symptoms grow worse, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bloody stool, bloodshot eyes, rash, chest pain and coughing, stomach pain, severe and rapid weight loss, bruising, bleeding from various orifices (usually the eyes), internal bleeding, impaired kidney function and impaired liver function.
The Ebola virus is transmitted by direct contact with infected blood, bodily fluids and tissue of infected people or animals (alive or dead) and with an incubation period of as little as two days (or as many as 21), people remain infections as long as their blood and fluids contain the virus.
With no known cure (several are in testing) for the disease, the only treatments available are labeled as “supportive intensive care” and are administered to treat the symptoms and provide some small level of comfort. During outbreaks, the people who are most at risk are healthcare workers, family members and any others who come into close and/or frequent contact with infected individuals, alive or deceased.
While the chances of recovering from Ebola virus if one becomes infected are slim, there are those are able to weather the storm and survive their near brush with death. The question then is: if I survive, how long will it take to recover?
To answer that we will turn to Dr. Tim Lahey, M.D. (an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine as well as microbiology and immunology with Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine). When asked how long it would take someone to clinically recover from the Ebola virus, Dr. Lahey stated that you could expect a few week recovery time. It generally takes one to two weeks for symptoms of the disease to appear, on average, and from that point death generally occurs within a couple of weeks. If you are lucky enough to survive, after this few week period you could be considered as recovered.
Twenty-seven year old Fanta battled this terrible disease for weeks, horrified that she had become infected with a disease which could not be cured. Hailing from Guinea, Fanta had contracted the most severe strain of Ebola, known as Zaire Ebola, which in previous outbreaks held a mortality rate of 90 percent.
Due to her “extraordinary capacity for resistance”, Fanta achieved what most stricken with the Ebola virus cannot…she lived! Now known as the miracle woman who survived Ebola, onlookers crowd around Fanta when she spoke of her ordeal and bombarded medical staff with questions about how she managed it.
The doctors from Doctors Without Borders state that chances of survival are greatly increased if the patient is kept hydrated and all symptoms and secondary infections treated. As for Fanta, she simply says that “It is as if I have just been reborn”.
Twenty-nine year old Abdullah first came to the doctors at a hospital close to his home in Conakry in late March presenting with a high fever, headaches and weakness. Due to the Ebola virus outbreak, the doctor quickly called in infections disease experts and transferred Abdullah to an isolation facility in Donka. Once there, Abdullah was tested and found to be positive for Ebola. He was devastated.
With 10 days spent in the isolation facility, Abdullah, father of twins, was confident he would never again see his wife or children. After battling the disease for five days, his condition began to improve. The fever went down, the diarrhea and vomiting went away, and the bleeding stopped. The doctors took a new blood sample and miraculously it came back negative for Ebola.
Much like our miracle woman, Fanta, Abdullah says “I felt as if I was reborn”. He was able to return to his wife and to hug his twins again. Abdullah credits his recovery to the wonderful doctors who took care of him during his illness and recommends anyone infected with Ebola go to the facility where he was treated.
For those lucky few who survive the battle with Ebola the question remains, what comes next? While most survivors are able to go back to their day to day lives, there are still a few concerns. We are not 100 percent sure how long they may still be able to pass the virus along. Estimations range from a few weeks to a few months. During this time, extra precautions must be taken, such as wearing a condom during intercourse.
They are also more prone to develop chronic inflammatory conditions affecting both the joints and eyes. In the joints, survivors are at risk for arthralgia which feels similar to arthritis and in the eyes they often come down with uveitis which at best causes sensitivity and excessive tearing…at worst, blindness.