Ebola virus disease: Symptoms and treatment

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The cause of Ebola virus disease

As the name indicates, Ebola virus disease (EVD) is caused by a virus. Five Ebola virus species have been identified. Four of them are known to cause diseases in humans. Ebola viruses have been associated with historical outbreaks in several Central African countries and caused a large outbreak in West Africa from 2014 to 2016.

How Ebola virus disease is spread

  • Person to person.
    • Unprotected contact with the blood, body fluids or tissues of an infected person with EVD symptoms. Infected individuals have not been shown to transmit the disease before they develop symptoms.
    • Unprotected sexual contact with a person who is recovering from EVD for up to 12 months following infection with an Ebola virus.
    • In health care settings, if staff who are caring for a person infected with the virus:
      • do not use appropriate infection prevention and control measures such as hand washing, safe use of needles, and isolating patients
      • do not consistently and correctly use proper personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns, and gloves
  • Contact with contaminated objects.
    • Unprotected contact with soiled surfaces, materials (such as bedding) or medical equipment (such as needles) contaminated with an Ebola virus.
  • Animals to humans.
    • Close contact (e.g., handling or eating), with infected animals (alive or dead) or their body fluids, including:
      • gorillas
      • monkeys
      • chimpanzees
      • fruit bats
      • porcupines
      • forest antelope
      • pigs

No animals in Canada have been found to be naturally infected with an Ebola virus. Only infected animals pose a risk of EVD.

Symptoms of Ebola virus disease

Symptoms of EVD may include:

  • fever
  • headache
  • feeling tired
  • muscle pain and weakness
  • sore throat
  • rash
  • nausea and vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • hemorrhaging (bleeding)

Symptoms can begin 2 to 21 days after exposure and usually start with the sudden onset of fever followed by other symptoms.

What to do if you become ill

Before visiting a doctor or a hospital, immediately call your appropriate public health authority if you have or if anyone in your household has:


  • has travelled in an EVD-affected area in the last 21 days

Describe your symptoms over the phone, tell them where you have been travelling or living and mention any possible exposure risks.

The public health authority will make appropriate arrangements for your medical assessment.

Follow the instructions provided to you by your public health authority and:

  • if not already isolated, immediately separate yourself from those around you and do not have physical contact with people or pets and animals
  • wash your hands frequently, especially after vomiting or using the toilet
  • ensure that others do not come into contact with your body fluids (including blood, urine, feces, vomit, saliva, sweat, breast milk and semen) or anything that may have come in contact with your body fluids (e.g. linens, clothing, toilet, toiletries)

How Ebola virus disease is diagnosed

EVD is confirmed through laboratory testing. Your doctor may suspect you have EVD based on your symptoms and patient information, including travel history.

Laboratory testing is necessary to diagnose EVD because Ebola symptoms can be similar to those of other infectious diseases that may be present in the same areas, such as malaria.

How Ebola virus disease is treated

There is currently no approved treatment specifically for EVD. Early diagnosis is important. EVD cases are very difficult to care for because the symptoms can get worse very quickly.

Patients with EVD can be given oxygen, intravenous fluids and other drugs to help manage their symptoms. The sooner patients seek help, the better their chances of survival.

Without medical care, up to 90% of EVD patients die.

In Canada, a person infected with the Ebola virus would be treated in a hospital with the highest level of infection prevention and control measures in place and by highly trained and specialized staff. In-hospital treatment would be necessary for the best standard of care, and to protect others from potential exposure to an Ebola virus.

Use of investigational drugs in outbreak situation

The World Health Organization has developed an ethical framework to allow for the use of investigational drugs in outbreak situations. Under the framework, outbreak responders use these medications to provide treatment on compassionate grounds, rather than to evaluate the effectiveness of the drugs. EVD patients are also volunteering to participate in clinical trials to test the effectiveness of some new, investigational drugs. The results of clinical trials will inform future licensing and recommendations for use of these products.

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