For visitors travelling from other parts of the world, Africa often appears to be tropical and mysterious, a reputation which simply adds to its attraction.
Unfortunately, it’s not just the culture that’s exotic, but the diseases too. The good news is that in the vast majority of cases, it’s easy to avoid falling ill by taking just a few sensible precautions.
But the Ebola virus is very different; a deadly disease with no cure that’s spread from person to person. A recent outbreak of the killer virus in Africa has led to many people questioning whether they should stay away.
We take a look at how dangerous Ebola is and whether you should be worried if you are planning on travelling to Africa.
What is Ebola?
A virus which first appeared in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1972, it is fatal to humans in around 90% of cases.
Spread from wild animals to humans via the blood, secretions, organs or bodily fluids – often by handling dead bodies of infected animals – the virus can then be spread from person to person. It can’t be caught by simply breathing the same air; the Ebola virus requires direct contact with bodily fluids of an infected person, transmitted either through broken skin or via mucous membranes.
The symptoms are sudden and severe, with fever, extreme weakness, muscular pains, sore throat and headache. This is quickly followed by a rash, diarrhoea, vomiting, impaired liver and kidney function and sometimes internal bleeding.
There is no effective vaccination and no specific cure. Treatment consists of intensive care support, with oral rehydration. There are no drugs which can help at present.
Sounds terrible, should I be scared?
In a word, no.
Although Ebola is undoubtedly a highly unpleasant virus with the potential to cause severe illness and even death, the chances of catching it are more or less non-existent, particularly if you follow advice.
The latest outbreak may have hit the headlines, but when considered in relation to other diseases in Africa, it pales into insignificance.
So far in 2014, more than 800 people have died from Ebola, an unquestionable tragedy for the individuals and their families. But during the same period, more than 600,000 will have died from tuberculosis and a further 300,000 from malaria.
Ebola manages to capture attention because the symptoms can be dramatic and horrifying, such as bleeding from the eyelids. But in reality, the virus is not that easy to transmit, and easily avoidable if you take the right precautions.
The World Health Organisation suggest wearing gloves and protective clothing when touching or handling wild animals or their dead bodies and that all raw meat derived from wild animals is cooked thoroughly prior to consumption. Avoid communities where there is a known Ebola outbreak, and don’t have any contact with the bodily fluids of individuals infected with the virus.
Even if you visit Africa on a safari, you won’t be touching or handling the wild animals or going near infected Ebola villages so there really is no risk. All of the above measures are sensible, and easily followed.
The Ebola virus may sound terrifying, and rightly so, but compared to other infectious diseases it’s very easily contained.
Need more convincing?
If you are still feeling unsure about how dangerous the Ebola virus really is, consider it in relation to a killer disease which is already on our shores.
With another surge expected to arise once again in the coming months, hospitals across the UK will be deluged with cases, making millions of people very ill and killing thousands more. By this time next year, worldwide the disease will have wiped out between 250,000 and 500,000 individuals, with many thousands of these deaths occurring in the UK.
There’s no cure for this disease, and no specific treatment. The vaccine only offers limited protection and doesn’t guarantee you won’t be infected with a different strain. It’s highly infectious and is an airborne virus, which means you can catch it simply from being in the same room as an infected person.
The facts don’t make pleasant reading yet this disease is amongst us now and you could be at risk. The name of it? Influenza.
The simple flu virus is far more dangerous than many people appreciate and causes many similar symptoms to Ebola. Far more easy to transmit from person to person, and affecting a far greater number of individuals, flu will kill more people in the UK this year than Ebola will in the whole of Africa.
Understanding Ebola and how to avoid it is a sensible precaution but it’s essential to keep matters in proportion. Ebola may have hit the headlines, like the SARS virus in 2003, but in reality the risk of catching it are negligible. Easily containable, and far more difficult to catch than everyday viruses such as flu, there’s absolutely no reason why Ebola should cause any concern for individuals planning on travelling to Africa, either now or in the future.