What is Ebola?

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call the Ebola virus a "rare and deadly disease" that originates in Africa.

It is transmitted by "direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes) with blood and body fluids (urine, feces, saliva, vomit and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola, or with objects (like needles) that have been contaminated with the virus."

It is not spread by air, water or food.

The virus initially presents with signs including high fever, vomiting and muscle pain and eventually progresses to more severe symptoms, including liver necrosis.

More than half of all Ebola patients die from the disease.

For more information about the virus, including the recent outbreak, visit www.cdc.gov.

Doctors at the state health department and the Medical University of South Carolina say hospitals here are prepared to deal with the deadly Ebola virus, should a case unexpectedly arise.

"I'm very impressed," said Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, chairman of the Charleston County delegation's infectious disease committee. The group discussed the virus with doctors at MUSC during a meeting Tuesday.

So far, MUSC hasn't seen any potential threat for Ebola. The hospital has encouraged providers to ask their patients about travel history if they present any initial symptoms - high fever, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.

"Travel history is the big red flag," said Dr. John Gnann, an infectious disease physician at MUSC.

Travelers returning from certain West African countries - specifically, Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone - may be at risk for the disease if they have had direct person-to-person contact with an Ebola patient and have come into contact with that person's bodily fluids or blood. Scientists say the virus isn't spread through the respiratory system like the flu.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report more than 3,000 Ebola cases have been confirmed or suspected in those countries this year. More than 1,750 patients have died. It is the largest Ebola outbreak ever.

A Charlotte-based missionary group reported on Tuesday that an American doctor treating obstetrics patients has tested positive for Ebola. Two other American health care providers who tested positive for the virus earlier this summer returned to the United States and recovered.

Dr. Gnann told South Carolina legislators that the mortality rate for the virus ranges from 50 percent to 75 percent, depending on the originating country. "It's very substantial," he said.

That's why MUSC doctors who suspect a patient may have contracted Ebola must take precautions even before the patient tests positive.

The hospital has identified isolation areas to quarantine potentially infected patients and has bundled kits of protective gear sorted by size for doctors and nurses to act quickly, if needed.

"They are doing the exact things we are asking facilities to do to prepare ahead of time," said Dr. Matthew Crist, an infectious disease physician for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

"I'm walking away a lot more confident now than I was before the meeting," Limehouse said.

Reach Lauren Sausser at 937-5598.