Staying hydrated could be the key to surviving Ebola

The ongoing Ebola outbreak in west Africa has killed over 5 000 people and the WHO expects the death rate to rise as time goes on. Much of this issue lies in the fact that there is still no cure for the virus and doctors are largely restricted to what is known as "supportive care".

Fluids and tissue salts

Supportive care focuses on caring for the body's own systems as it tries to fight off the disease. Essentially, doctors and nurses just try to keep the patient alive long enough for their immune system to develop antibodies and kill the virus. This is different to other treatable diseases in that no artificial antibodies are given to the patient.

This supportive care, according to the CDC, generally entails ensuring the patient's blood pressure and oxygen levels remain stable, treating other infections and conditions brought on by Ebola, and providing the necessary supply of fluids and tissue salts.

Especially fluids are important and might be the key to drastically reducing the fatality rate of Ebola. It would seem that all you have to do is drink water – and lots of it. Bloomberg report that drinking 4 litres of rehydration solution a day is an extremely effective method of mitigating the negative effects of Ebola. Like most serious viruses, Ebola causes sufferers to experience extreme bouts of vomiting and diarrhoea, resulting in a massive loss of fluids. Patients can become dehydrated rapidly, and this greatly inhibits their body's ability to react to the illness and, ultimately, survive.

Read: 4 reasons everyone should drink more water

A recent paper in the New England Journal of Medicine written by doctors fighting the disease in Liberia claimed that patients lost 5 litres of fluids a day through diahorrea alone. Eventually, many patients' hearts were unable to continue pumping sufficient blood through the body, leading to multiple organ failure. 

Drinking deeply unpleasant

Unfortunately, drinking is often the last thing an Ebola patient wants to do. The intense nausea that accompanies the virus means that drinking is deeply unpleasant for sufferers, something that is compounded by the vast quantity of fluids they need. Even a healthy person would find drinking 4 litres of water a day a challenge. It is likely that large numbers of Ebola sufferers could have survived if only they managed to overcome their nausea.

Rehydration solution is more than just water. It contains significant levels of a number of minerals that the body requires and that are often depleted by the symptoms of the illness. These include potassium and sodium which are essential for normal cell functioning, as well as calcium and magnesium. 

Image credit: AFP

Read more:

Many women dying in childbirth in Ebola-hit countries
The Ebola epidemic in numbers 
Individual genetic differences may determine Ebola survival chances 
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