theSkimm's Guide to Ebola


The story

We recently experienced the largest Ebola outbreak in history. Until 2014, the worst outbreak on record had killed about 430 people. During the most recent crisis –which lasted from 2014 to 2016 – more than 11,000 people died, most of them in West Africa.

What is ebola?

It’s a virus that starts out like the flu (think: fever, headache), but can get scarier later on (think: internal and external bleeding, hemorrhaging). Until late 2016, there was no vaccine and there’s still no specific cure. Without access to the right health care, the mortality rate can be up to 90%.

How do you get it?

By coming into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person or animal. Health officials say Ebola is only contagious when someone is showing symptoms. That’s why health workers who treat Ebola patients wear head-to-toe protective gear. The virus can be in a person’s body for up to 21 days before symptoms start to show and it starts to become contagious.

Where does ebola come from?

The first known case was in 1976 in Zaire, Africa. The virus gets its name from the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of the Congo...for no reason other than the researchers saw it on a map and thought it sounded like a good name for a disease. Scientists think Ebola comes from fruit bats, and people get the virus by coming into contact with things that have the bats’ bodily fluids on them. The 2014 outbreak is believed to have started at the end of 2013 when a baby in Guinea got Ebola from an infected animal. Then, the virus spread mostly in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. In those countries, health workers dealt with very limited resources, but also a stigma. The disease is seen as so dangerous and shameful that it made many patients scared to come forward.

How did it come to the US?

A man named Thomas Eric Duncan flew from West Africa to the US in September 2014. Just a few days earlier, Duncan was in Liberia and helped transport a pregnant woman with Ebola to the hospital for treatment. He started showing symptoms after arriving in the US, was treated in isolation in a Dallas hospital, and passed away. Two health care workers who treated him also contracted the virus, raising lots of questions over whether the US was prepared to handle treatment. The US dealt with a total of four cases of Ebola during the crisis. Duncan was the only fatality.

Is the crisis over?

For now. The World Health Organization declared an end to the international Ebola emergency in 2016. They also said that we can expect occasional flare-ups from time to time. The international community is hoping that a successful vaccine developed in 2016 will prepare countries to handle Ebola in the future.


This last outbreak of Ebola killed thousands in West Africa and sent the rest of the world into a panic. With a new vaccine but no confirmed cure, the threat of another outbreak could pose a serious risk of pandemic.

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