Ebola Virus

Ebola Virus


The Ebola virus is one of two members of a family of viruses that is designated as the Filoviridae. The name of the virus comes from a river located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the virus was discovered. Although naturally occurring, some public health experts worry that the lethality of the virus makes it an attractive potential bioterrorism agent. Under natural circumstances Ebola induced hemorrhagic fever carriers have such high death rates that their rapid death actually acts to limit the spread of the virus. Deliberate spread of the virus would counteract this natural limiting factor.

The species of Ebola virus are among a number of viruses that cause a disease, hemorrhagic fever, that is typified by copious internal bleeding and bleeding from various orifices of the body, including the eyes. The disease can be swiftly devastating and results in death in over 90 per cent of cases.

To date, four species of Ebola virus have been identified, based on differences in their genetic sequences and in the immune reaction they elicit in infected individuals. Three of the species cause disease in humans. These are Ebola-Zaire (isolated in 1976), Ebola-Sudan (also isolated in 1976), and Ebola-Ivory Coast (isolated in 1994). The fourth species, called Ebola-Reston, causes disease in primates. The latter species is capable of infecting humans but so far has not caused disease in humans. Ebola-Reston is named for the United States military primate research facility where the virus was isolated, during a 1989 outbreak of the disease caused by infected monkeys that had been imported from the Philippines. Until the non-human involvement of the disease was proven, the outbreak was thought to be the first outside of Africa.

The appearance of the Ebola virus only dates back to 1976. The explosive onset of the illness and the underdeveloped and wild nature of the African region of the virus's appearance have complicated the definitive determinations of the origin and natural habitat of Ebola. The source of the Ebola virus is still unknown. However, given that filovirus, which produce similar effects, establish a latent infection in African monkeys, macaques, and chimpanzees, scientists consider the possibility that the Ebola virus likewise normally resides in an animal that lives in Africa. A search for Ebola virus in such primates has so far not revealed evidence of the virus.

Almost all confirmed cases of Ebola from 1976 to 2002 have been in Africa. In the latest outbreak, which has been ongoing since late in 2001, 54 people have died in the Gabon as of February of 2002. In the past, one individual in Liberia presented immunological evidence of exposure to Ebola, but had no symptoms. As well, a laboratory worker in England developed Ebola fever as a result of a laboratory accident in which the worker was punctured by an Ebola-containing needle.

The Ebola virus produces a high fever, headache, muscle aches, abdominal pain, tiredness and diarrhea within a few days after infecting a person. Some people will also display bloody diarrhea and vomit blood. At this stage of the disease some people recover. But, for most of those who are infected, the disease progresses within days to produce copious internal bleeding, shock and death.

Outbreaks of infection with the Ebola virus appear sporadically and suddenly. The outbreak rapidly moves through the local population and often just as quickly ends. The initial infection is presumable by contact between the person and the animal that harbors the virus. Subsequent person-to-person spread likely occurs by contamination with the infected blood or body tissues of an infected person in the home or hospital setting, or via contaminated needles. The fact that infected people tend to be in more under-developed regions, where even the health care facilities are not as likely to be equipped with isolation wards, furthers the risk of spread. The person-to-person passage is immediate; unlike the animal host, people do not harbor the virus for lengthy periods of time.

The possibility of air-borne transmission of the virus is debatable. Ebola-Reston may well have been transmitted from monkey to monkey in the Reston military facility via the air distribution system, since some of the monkeys that were infected were never in physical contact with the other infected monkeys. However, if the other species of the virus are capable of similar transmission, this has not yet been documented. Laboratory studies have shown that Ebola virus can remain infectious when aerosolized. But the current consensus is that airborne transmission is possible but plays a minor role in the spread of the virus.

In the intervening years between the sporadic outbreaks, the Ebola virus probably is resident in the natural reservoir.

Currently there is no cure for the infection caused by the Ebola virus. However, near the end of an outbreak of the virus in 1995 in Kikwit, Africa, blood products from survivors of the infection were transfused into those actively experiencing the disease. Of those eight people who received the blood, only one person died. Whether or not the transfused blood conveyed protective factor was not ascertained. A detailed examination of this possibility awaits another outbreak.

The molecular basis for the establishment of an infection by the Ebola virus is still also more in the realm of proposal than fact. One clue has been the finding of a glycoprotein that is a shortened version of the viral constituent in the in the circulating fluid of humans and monkeys. This protein has been suggested to function as a decoy for the immune system, diverting the immune defenses from the actual site of viral infection. Another immunosuppressive mechanism may be the selective invasion and damage of the spleen and the lymph nodes, which are vital in the functioning of the immune system.

The devastating infection caused by the Ebola virus is all the more remarkable given the very small size of the viral genome, or complement of genetic material. Fewer than a dozen genes have been detected. How the virus establishes an infection and evades the host immune system with only the capacity to code for less than twelve proteins is unknown.



Cormican, M. G. and M. A. Pfaller. "Molecular Pathology of Infectious Diseases," in Clinical Diagnosis and Management by Laboratory Methods, 20th ed. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 2001.


Peters, C. J., and J. W. LeDuc. "An Introduction to Ebola: The Virus and the Disease." The Journal of Infectious Diseases no. 179 (Supplement 1, February 1999): ix–xvi.


Centers for Disease Control. "Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever." 2001. < http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/spb/mnpages/dispages/ebola.htm > (March 12, 2003).

——. "Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers." 2000. < http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvrd/spb/mnpages/dispages/vhf.htm > (March 12, 2003).


Biological Warfare
Biological Weapons, Genetic Identification
Bioshield Project
CDC (United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Hemorrhagic Fevers and Diseases
Viral Biology

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