Ebola Medical Ward (by Daniel Bausch, MD, MPH&TM)

Ebola Medical Ward (photo by Daniel Bausch, MD, MPH&TM)

Why are so many people getting sick if Ebola is not very contagious? How are makers supposed to get involved and make a difference? We need to understand fundamentals about Ebola if we’re going to help with Fighting Ebola. Let’s start with a little background on the disease.

The current epidemic is the Zaire strain of Ebola. People become infected with it only when they come in contact with bodily fluids (e.g. blood, saliva, tears, urine, etc.) of someone showing symptoms. Ebola is not airborne. To become infected you must transfer the virus from infected fluids in to your system. The common pathways are through the mucus membranes of the eyes, nose and mouth but there are other ways such as through an open wound. This need for direct contact is why it’s not very contagious.

However, in caring for the sick there is plenty of opportunity to contract the disease. Infected people experience fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and more producing lots of infected fluids. The sicker the infected, the more virus they produce, and the easier it is for someone to pick it up. Very importantly, you must come in physical contact with body fluids and the virus must find its way into your system. The virus is found in a variety of fluids including blood, saliva, stools, tears, urine, sweat, breast milk, and semen. Caring for the sick puts people in close proximity to infected fluids and potentially exposing caregivers to Ebola.

Another irony is that while it’s often deadly if you contract it, the Ebola virus is actually quite easy to kill. This virus is in what’s called a “lipid envelope”, that means the virus is enclosed in a vulnerable fatty enclosure. The protective envelop can be easily destroyed with exposure to disinfectants, heat or UV light from sunshine. The virus only stays alive for hours to days and is easy to kill with bleach or alcohol. In many ways this makes the virus seem rather feeble and easy to clean up after.

So, Ebola is not very contagious.

However the sick produce lots of fluids

and contact with those can lead to infection.

Therein lies our challenge … eliminating exposure while close to the infected. We makers can invent ways to do this, prototype our ideas, and help shut down this crisis. Pop on over to the Research area of the Challenge to learn more. To solve a problem you must first understand it.