Ebola DiagnosisThe US Food and Drug Administration has approved the use of a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) based test for the diagnosis of the Ebola Zaire virus. The FDA has authorized the use of this unapproved Ebola virus test under a special emergency-use provision.

A technique widely used in molecular biology, PCR testing allows for accurate diagnosis of underlying conditions which may not be currently clinically active but have potential to develop in the future.

The test was developed by the US Department of Defense (DoD) and uses Thermo Fisher Scientific Life Technologies’ TaqMan technology. The test-tube diagnostic test is meant for use in individuals, including DoD personnel and responders with signs and symptoms of infection with Ebola Zaire virus, who are at risk for exposure to the virus or who may have been exposed to the virus.

Though the FDA is working with other government agencies to speed up the development of potential Ebola treatments, officials say that efforts to develop a vaccine for the fatal illness are unlikely to be successful until 2015.

The recent Ebola outbreak has been described as the deadliest so far, infecting at least 1,711 and killing 932 in West Africa. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are five different strains of the Ebola virus. The Zaire strain of the virus is particularly deadly with a fatality rate of greater than 80 percent. The virus is transmitted to people from wild animals and spreads when uninfected people come into direct contact with an infected person or his or her bodily fluids. The initial symptoms include fever, vomiting, muscle aches and weariness, similar to those for flu. The infected person will suffer bleeding and possible organ failure as the virus multiplies and damages the cells that line blood vessels.

A person who contracts the disease is isolated. Health care support is offered in the form of hydration, oxygen and treatment of complicating infections. WHO recommends that only trained personnel handle the bodies of Ebola victims.

Countries across the world have taken measures against the Ebola outbreak by issuing health and travel advisories. In the U.S., reports of persons with Ebola-like symptoms being admitted to hospitals have raised concerns, though it is not certain if they are actually infected.

The FDA-approved PCA test offers hope for detection of this deadly Ebola virus. There is no vaccine and no standard treatment, but progress has been reported with an experimental vaccine developed by an arm of the National Institutes of Health. Designed by the Vaccine Research Centre and tested on monkeys, an expert has described the results as “quite impressive”.