Ebola Vaccine: What’s the hype all about? (Part 1)

A few weeks ago, my Facebook feed blew up about Ebola.

Mostly about the Ebola Vaccine being approved by the FDA…along with dire predictions that the news media (or the government, or a morally ambiguous pharmaceutical company…) would soon manufacture an ebola crisis that would get the Ebola vaccine quickly added to the official CDC schedule of childhood vaccinations.

Most Mamas I talked to thought that was a bad idea.

I realized that I didn’t know a lot about Ebola virus. There was a vague memory of a very limited outbreak in the U.S. several years ago. And how it had seemed scary to people because Ebola was supposedly a nasty, deadly sort of virus.

As a registered nurse, I remember receiving sporadic email updates from my state’s Department of Health about Ebola, including emergency procedures for how to handle it. Unfortunately, I never paid much attention to those updates because:

  1. I’m not working in a healthcare setting that would need that info, and
  2. I won’t be volunteering in case of a widespread medical emergency because I have (so many…) young kids to take care of.

But an Ebola Vaccine? Now that was something a little more relevant to my current life. I decided it was time to do a bit of digging about Ebola and find out whether we mamas should be concerned…

What is Ebola?

Ebola is a hemorrhagic virus that first surfaced in Africa during the 1970’s. It’s considered “hemorrhagic” because one of the major symptoms is that your blood loses its ability to clot (obviously, the anatomy & physiology is a bit more complicated, but that’s the gist of it). That causes you to bleed a lot: aka, to hemorrhage.

When Ebola was first discovered, there was a legitimate fear in the medical and research communities that it might be a “world killer” type virus, because:

  • The first recorded outbreak had a death rate of 90%
  • It’s method of transmission was unknown, but it seemed easy to spread (and possibly airborne, they couldn’t determine for sure at the time)
  • With a 10-ish day incubation period before noticeable symptoms began, world travelers could theoretically spread it around the world within 24-hours

Luckily, even though there are still a lot of unanswered questions about this rare illness, some of these original fears have already been put to rest.

For example, although the death rate of the very first Ebola outbreak was 90%, later outbreaks showed ranges more like 25% to 90%. Survival seems to depend on which strain of Ebola is present, as well as the patient’s access to appropriate medical care.

In addition, fears that Ebola could be spread airborne appear to be unfounded. It’s now known that the primary way Ebola is spread is through body fluids like blood, vomit, and feces.

And while there have been a very limited number of incidences where Ebola infected people have traveled internationally, any “outbreak” at their destination has been contained.

But despite what we have learned about Ebola, there’s still the issue of that “25%-90%” death rate…and if those numbers alone don’t scare you a little, wait until you hear about the symptoms.

What are the symptoms of Ebola?

Ebola is nasty. Here’s a PG-13 description of how nasty it can get.

Once you’ve been exposed to Ebola, you usually don’t notice any symptoms for about 10-days, even though you may be contagious during that time. Around Day 10, you start having a terrible headache and develop a high fever. The insides of your eyelids turn bright red, and your eyes are bloodshot.

Could it be…Malaria?

If you’re in Africa and can afford to seek medical care at this point, you’re most likely to be treated for Malaria because the symptoms are similar. Malaria is caused by a parasite that passes from person to person through mosquito bites. That also means that it’s not very contagious directly from person to person, and is very treatable with medication.

However, this time, your symptoms don’t improve after taking the medication.

After another day or two, you notice a flat, red-spotted rash across your body. You’re having terrible stomach pain now, and explosive diarrhea…often bloody.

Could it be…Typhoid Fever?

If you waited to seek medical treatment until this point, you might be diagnosed with Typhoid Fever instead. Typhoid Fever is caused by a bacteria, and so it can typically be treated with antibiotics.

Obviously, antibiotics won’t work on this virus, though. (Or any virus for that matter.)

By now your facial muscles have gone slack, which gives you a mask-like appearance that freaks out the family members caring for you. It’s difficult for them, because in addition to the explosive diarrhea, you are now starting to projectile vomit as well.

As a result, your bedroom is rather gross, despite your family’s best efforts at helping you to the bathroom and cleaning up your various body fluids from the bedding, walls, and floor.

Sometimes they notice that you have blood dripping from your eyes, and you now have an almost continuous nose bleed.

Your family also notices that your personality has started to change. You’re still able to answer factual questions about who you are and where you are, so they know that you are cognitively aware. But you’re just not the same. You’re becoming more aggressive and combative, more detached.

In fact, it’s the closest thing to a real-life zombie that I’ve ever heard of.

Could it be…Yellow Fever?

If you waited to seek treatment until now, you might be diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of Yellow Fever…especially if you have never received the Yellow Fever vaccine.

(Which is not a routine vaccine in the United States for children, or anyone else, unless you are traveling internationally to a country where it is endemic…like Africa.)

Yellow Fever is caused by a virus, and there are no treatments other than supportive measures. The death rate of Yellow Fever is 30%-50%.

When doctors notice signs that your liver and kidneys aren’t functioning properly, they may think it’s due to Yellow Fever…and not realize that it’s actually because the Ebola virus has infected every type of cell tissue in your body. Except for your bones, muscles, and connective tissue cells, of course.

In fact, that is exactly why you were able to transport yourself to the hospital without assistance, even though you feel terrible. And now you’ve unknowingly exposed who knows how many other people to Ebola.

All despite the fact that the Ebola virus is literally liquifying your internal organs day by day.

#RealLifeZombieApocolypsePotential

Your medical team decides to give you IV saline to help your dehydration. See, you can no longer eat or drink anything without vomiting blood…In fact, you’re bleeding almost continuously from your gums now, too.

But the nurse quickly discovers that your veins are about as reliable as spaghetti noodles. Every time she inserts the needle, you begin bleeding around it and into the surrounding tissue. Eventually, she stops trying to establish an IV because she is afraid that she will cause you to bleed to death.

Within another day or two, you start convulsing and die.

It has only been about 2-3 weeks since you were originally exposed to the Ebola virus.

In the meantime, you have been walking around town, potentially exposing others as well. Your closest friends and family who have taken care of you are at highest risk…after all, they’ve been touching your infected body fluids all week. And the healthcare providers that examined you at the hospital are also at very high risk of having been infected, because they didn’t know to wear the appropriate personal protective gear when caring for you.

Ebola Symptoms during Pregnancy

I don’t even want to describe details of what Ebola symptoms look like if you’re unfortunate enough to contract it while pregnant (like I happen to be right now…).

Suffice it to say, the baby dies in utero, labor is extra excruciating for Mama, and you will bleed to death shortly after the placenta is delivered.

Now to the good news (yes, there IS some good news).

How common is Ebola?

Ebola is extremely rare.

Despite the Ebola outbreaks that have occurred over the last decade, you are still very unlikely to be exposed to Ebola. In fact, here’s some stats from some recent outbreaks to help you judge for yourself…

  • West Africa outbreak (2014-2016): This is currently the largest Ebola outbreak to date, with 28,616 cases reported, including 11,310 deaths. That is an almost 40% death rate.
  • Democratic Republic of Congo outbreak (2018-Present): Yes, there IS currently a major Ebola outbreak going on in the world. As of January 2020, there have been 3,406 cases reported, including 2,236 deaths. That is an almost 66% death rate.
  • United States “outbreak” (2014): The United States has only seen 11 confirmed cases of Ebola ever. Nine of those cases were travelers who already had Ebola when they entered the country, either because they were being medically transported for treatment (often US citizens who contracted Ebola while assisting in Africa) OR because they didn’t know they had Ebola until their symptoms developed after arriving the US. Seven of these 9 patients survived. The other 2 patients with Ebola were nurses who were infected while caring for one of the international Ebola patient who had traveled to the US unknowingly. Both nurses survived.

And just to give you even more peace of mind (maybe…): It is estimated that 3,287 people die daily from car crashes.

That means that even during the worst Ebola outbreak in history…more people died from car crashes during the first 4 days of that outbreak than of Ebola during the entire 2 years it was spreading in West Africa.

Would you want to experience Ebola?

Ebola is no joke. It is a horrible, scary illness. I would not want to get it myself, and I would much prefer not to watch a loved one go through that experience, either.

That being said, it’s also extremely rare…especially in the U.S.

But if that’s the case, why all this talk about a vaccine? Is it safe? How well researched is it? Are there any treatment options for Ebola? What are the risks for international travelers?

There’s clearly more to discuss! Hence Ebola “Part Two” will be coming next week. We’ll learn more about treatment options…including the recent development of an FDA-approved Ebola vaccine, and whether it will be added to the pediatric schedule of vaccines…

Stay tuned!

Leave a comment! What are your biggest questions about the Ebola Virus?

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