How Likely Are You to Survive Ebola?

In 2014, there was a deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa. You may not have traveled to that area during that time, but you may recall several doctors and nurses in the Unites States being quarantined for the virus, as well as a few doctors and workers being brought back to the U.S. for treatment. And recently, outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo have made headlines. The truth is, a few years ago, most Americans were probably worried about a full-fledged outbreak in the country. But if that ever happened, how likely would you be to survive? According to the CDC, it depends on two specific factors.

A girls suspected of being infected with the Ebola virus has her temperature checked

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is very deadly. | Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images

What is Ebola?

The Ebola virus is a highly fatal disease that was first discovered in the Ebola River, part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Little is known about where the virus came from, but researchers suspect bats may have been the original carriers. Humans get infected when they come in contact with the virus, specifically through bodily fluids of a person who either has the disease or has died from the disease. Symptoms include fever, severe headache, muscle pain, weakness, and stomach pain or vomiting.

The virus can show itself anywhere from two to 21 days after exposure. On average, symptoms show up within eight to 10 days. But the symptoms of Ebola are similar to the flu or malaria, so they can be misleading. If you’ve been in contact with an Ebola patient and come down with those symptoms, go to the hospital immediately.

Surviving Ebola depends on two factors: Your immune system and your treatment

The CDC credits two things for giving you the best chance of survival: A strong immune system and proper treatment. And the disease has no specific treatment or cure, yet during the 2014 outbreak, seven out of nine patients treated in the United States survived. However, the odds are not nearly as good in Africa. According to the World Health Organization, the fatality rate in West Africa is nearly 90% — far greater than the rate in the United States.

How the immune system plays a role

Live Science spoke with Derek Gatherer, a bioinformatics researcher at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, about how the immune system plays a role in recovering from Ebola. “The patients who survive it best are the ones who don’t get such bad [immune] deficiency,” Gatherer said. Essentially, if your immune system is strong enough to handle the virus, you might just be able to come out unscathed. Many people in West African countries don’t have access to the same food and water as people in more developed places like the U.S. and Europe. And a weaker immune system is already a strike against you in terms of survival.

People who are properly nourished tend to have stronger immune systems. So if you’re getting proper nutrients from healthy food and water every day, the way many Americans are, you may have a better chance of fighting the infection than someone in a less developed country who has little access to proper food and clean water.

How your treatment plays a role

Part of the reason why West African countries have difficulty treating Ebola patients is because they have faulty healthcare systems. They don’t have the tools and resources that hospitals in more developed countries have, which makes it hard for them to give proper treatment to every patient. Countries like the U.S. have higher-quality supportive care, which gives the patients several treatments at once to reduce symptoms and help the body return to normal.

In the cases the U.S. has seen so far, medical treatment was given very early in the diagnosis. For most diseases, the earlier the treatment, the better the end result. The Ebola virus comes in stages, so getting help in the first stage — when those early symptoms of fever and weakness arrive — yields the best chance for recovery.

The U.S. also has far more experimental drugs available than West African countries. Blood transfusions and the experimental drug ZMapp (which cured the Ebola virus in monkeys) were used in several U.S. Ebola patients, and while neither has been a proven treatment yet, doctors believe it made a big difference.

So, how likely are you to survive Ebola?

There is no clear cut answer to this. However, seven of nine patients in the U.S. survived the 2014 outbreak, and seven of the eight Americans survived. (Thomas Eric Duncan, a man from Liberia, died in Dallas). While the U.S. hasn’t seen nearly the number of cases that West Africa has seen, it’s possible that Americans’ survival rates are much higher because of both their immune systems and doctors’ speedy and intense treatments.

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