Ebola is spreading faster than first anticipated, with the first case in the United States now having been confirmed. If the disease spreads to the US, we must ask: how quickly is the deadly virus spreading and what risks does it pose to us?

Army research technicians prepare an assay to identify Ebola in biological samples, which are handled with protection suits and inside a negative-pressure biological safety cabinet to offer an extra protection against potential transmission. // Credit: Army Medicine, Dr. Randal J. Schoepp (Flickr)
Army research technicians prepare an assay to identify Ebola in biological samples, which are handled with protection suits and inside a negative-pressure biological safety cabinet to offer an extra protection against potential transmission. // Credit: Army Medicine, Dr. Randal J. Schoepp (Flickr)

Ebola Virus Disease, more commonly known as Ebola, is an acute illness known to be fatal without sufficient treatment. Transmission occurs through contact with bodily fluids from infected persons, with common symptoms such as fever, headache, sore throat, joint and muscle pain and muscle weakness appearing within a week; patients usually go on to develop diarrhoea, vomiting, a rash, and stomach pain. Kidney and liver function become impaired and the patient begins to bleed internally, and in some cases from the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, hence Ebola is one of a group of viruses called ‘haemorrhagic fevers’. The disease is fatal in 50-90% of cases. The sooner a patient receives treatment, the higher the chances of survival. Currently, there are no treatments or vaccines that are fully licensed, so rehydration and alleviating individual symptoms are common practice.

So, how bad is the epidemic? The truth is that no one really knows for sure. Currently, the reported death toll is said to be at 3439; however, the World Health Organisation (WHO) predicts that the actual death count, including unreported cases, could be triple this figure. As of early October, the WHO has suggested there could be as many as 20,000 cases in the three main affected countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. However, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention have anticipated a worst-case scenario in which there could be up to 1.4 million cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone alone by mid-January 2015 if healthcare systems continue to be overwhelmed, and transmission is not contained.

What’s the risk for us? Whilst the thought of Ebola is a daunting one and potential spread to the US has increased concern, there is a vast difference between Africa and the UK. We have a well-established healthcare system with many professionals ensuring that the epidemic does not affect us. In comparison, African states tend to have very few doctors to every thousand of the population. Of course, it isn’t guaranteed that further cases won’t develop from the existing one in the US, but extensive preventive measures will be taken to resist this, including temperature checks at airports and restricted flights.

So, all in all, whilst the epidemic is spreading at a fast rate in Africa, the risk of catching Ebola in the UK is pretty slim.

By Jamie Jordon