Diagnosing Ebola Symptoms Proves as Tricky as Virus' Treatment

Ebola virus symptoms often mimic those associated with other infectious diseases, making diagnosis a complex process. Treatment consists mainly of supportive care.

The Ebola virus has made worldwide headlines over the past few weeks as hundreds of people infected with the virus have died in three African countries. Meanwhile, at least two Americans working in Africa have been diagnosed and returned home for treatment.

Both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have been keeping on top of the outbreak and have released guidelines on symptoms people should watch for if they believe they may have been infected.

According to the WHO, Ebola in many ways resembles a “severe acute viral illness,” which can include symptoms like fever, weakness, muscle pain, and headaches, as well as a sore throat. As the virus progresses, patients may also experience vomiting, diarrhea, and impaired kidney and liver function. The virus has also been known to cause internal and external bleeding in some patients.

The WHO also has also noted that it is possible for a person to be infectious to others around them for as long as the virus lives in their blood and other bodily secretions. The incubation period for the Ebola virus from the time of infection has been pegged at between 2 and 21 days. However, the disease may lie dormant for an extended period in comes cases; one quarantined patient was recorded as having the virus living in his semen for 61 days.

Because the Ebola virus produces symptoms that resemble those of other illnesses, the WHO has recommended that clinicians eliminate other possible culprits like malaria, typhoid, shigellosis, and cholera before diagnosing a patient with Ebola. According to the WHO, “Ebola virus infections can be diagnosed definitively in a laboratory through several types of tests,” including the antibody-capture enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA), antigen detection tests, reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) assay, virus isolation by cell culture, and others.

Also, health care workers should exercise extreme caution when examining patients suspected of being infected with the Ebola virus. “Samples from patients are an extreme biohazard risk,” the WHO noted. “Testing should be conducted under maximum biological containment conditions.”

There is no approved Ebola vaccine available at this time. Patients who are infected with the virus require intensive supportive care, often including oral rehydration with solutions containing electrolytes or intravenous fluids.

Some strains of Ebola virus are associated with a 90% mortality rate, though the current outbreak has seen that number reduced to around 60%. In its report the CDC noted that the reason some patients survive the virus and others do not is still being determined.

“Some who become sick with Ebola HF are able to recover, while others do not,” the WHO noted. “The reasons behind this are not yet fully understood. However, it is known that patients who die usually have not developed a significant immune response to the virus at the time of death.”