The worst Ebola outbreak on record is currently unfolding in West Africa, and it’s been a long affair that has infected more than 1,000, killed more than 600 people, and has yet to show any signs of slowing down. Here’s the most basic facts you should know about Ebola:

1) Ebola doesn’t change as fast as some other viruses: The Ebola virus that’s causing the current outbreak is a known quantity. And there’s no expectation that it will change significantly. Ebola was first discovered in 1976 and has stayed pretty much the same ever since

2) Contacted through close contact: It’s extremely unlikely that someone would catch Ebola from simply being on the same plane or in the same public space with someone who was affected. That’s because Ebola doesn’t tend to travel through the air like the flu and other respiratory illnesses. In order to catch Ebola, you have to touch the bodily fluids (such as sweat, vomit, diarrhea, blood, urine, or semen) of an Ebola patient — dead or alive. Because Ebola can stay alive on a surface for at least several days, you could also get it from touching bedding or other inanimate objects contaminated with those bodily fluids. After that, you would have to get the virus into your body by, for example, touching food and eating it.

3) People with Ebola generally aren’t infectious until they’re sick: This means there’s usually a clue that someone might be contagious — such as fever, aches, or diarrhea. These early clues can be confusing, however, because they often look like other things: namely the flu and other diarrhea illnesses. (Some of the more famous symptoms of Ebola, like bleeding from orifices, don’t tend to come on until later and sometimes don’t happen at all.)

4) People can survive Ebola: The current Ebola outbreak has had a survival rate of about 40 percent, per the latest numbers from the World Health Organization. And good medical care can help people survive.

5) The current outbreak is so bad because it’s happening in places with poor health infrastructure: The countries at the center of the outbreak — Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone — are among the poorest in the world. With health infrastructure that weak, as such, a lot of the job of fighting Ebola in western Africa has fallen to non-governmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders. Another factor making the current outbreak so deadly: This is the first Ebola outbreak in the region, which has made awareness and education especially difficult.

6) Ebola could pop up in random countries, but that doesn’t necessarily mean disaster:The high rate of international travel these days means that it’s possible for a single case of an infectious disease to pop up somewhere far-flung. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be a giant outbreak in that new location. A lot depends on how quickly the virus is noticed and how prepared the public health system is to deal with it.

learn more