Understanding Ebola

What exactly is Ebola, how do you get it, and what are the symptoms? The House Call Doctor answers your questions.

Sanaz Majd, MD
4-minute read
Episode #163

If you’ve turned on the TV lately at all, you are likely either obsessed with the news coverage on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa--and are contemplating living in a bubble so you'll never have contact with another human being again--or you are so sick of hearing about it that you are finding yourself watching more episodes of "The Kardashians" than ever before, simply to banish thoughts of deadly viruses that wreak havoc on entire villages.

Either way, I’m hoping to relieve some of that Ebola-generated anxiety. 

Sure, the media loves to run with these mysterious-infectious-disease-outbreak stories, just like Hollywood likes to make movies about rare, unlikely scenarios that threaten our common sense and increase our fear (“Outbreak,” “28 Days Later,” or “I Am Legend,” anyone?)

But why has Ebola become such a hot topic of terror-provoking media coverage? There are a few potential reasons:

  • It’s very foreign to us in the U.S. (thankfully): how many of us actually know someone infected with Ebola? 
  • It’s potentially fatal: it has an over 50% death rate. Scary. 
  • It’s gross (at least for many non-health professionals): who wants to think about bleeding out of every orifice?

The media needs to sell, and Ebola sounds like a perfect storyline. But as my colleague, Ask Science, covered in his podcast about the science of (and studies on) Ebola, the "facts" reported by the media aren't always clear, or correct.

So before you dash to the nearest hospital the next time you run a fever, let’s find out what it really is, how it’s contracted, and understand the reality of such a disease spreading in the U.S. 

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a virus that is named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it first was identified in 1976. There are currently 5 strains of the virus, with 4 out of the 5 causing disease in humans. It is suspected that it first originated from fruit bats, and then spread to humans.

It is the cause of a very threatening illness called “hemorrhagic fever,” where the term “hemorrhagic” refers to bleeding that is often accompanied by a high fever. This bleeding is often caused by Ebola’s effects on the liver, which normally produces the necessary clotting factors to stop bleeding when it occurs. If the clotting factors are no longer being produced by the liver the way they should be, then the patient can experience excessive and prolonged bleeding.

This bleeding can be external or internal, and can involve multiple organs, such as the kidneys, brain, and lungs. Unfortunately, Ebola has a high risk of mortality associated with it, and about 55% to 88% of those who contract it eventual die from organ failure, due to bleeding and/or shock.

As of early August 2014, there have been about 1711 cases of reported Ebola since 1976, including 932 deaths. To put this in context, the much more common flu virus often kills thousands each year in the United States alone.


Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd is a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. Her special interests are women's health and patient education.