Ebola and influenza compared

The 2014 Ebola outbreak has been the subject of intense global scrutiny. How does it compare with influenza?

  Ebola Influenza
Infectious agent Virus Virus
Family Filoviruses (Ebola viruses, Marburg virus) Orthomyxoviruses (influenza A, B and C and some minor viruses)
Origins of infectious agent Probably bats Endemic in humans, also transferred from other animals, e.g. birds, pigs
Symptoms of infection Nausea and vomiting, diarrhoea, bleeding, chest pain, stomach pain, severe weight loss Cough, fever, sweats, aches and pains, sneezing, headache; can be severe in people with underlying health problems; possibility of complications, particularly bacterial respiratory infections (e.g. pneumonia); highly pathogenic avian flu can trigger severe lung and other diseases
Death rate 60–70% in 2014 outbreak; up to 90% in past outbreaks Seasonal flu: varies widely between groups and hard to quantify (deaths are often put down to complications). H1N1 2009 swine flu pandemic: around 0.02%; 1918 Spanish flu pandemic: 2%; H5N1 avian flu: around 60%.
Annual number of deaths 2014 (end of October): 5,000 (reported number, probably an underestimate). Worst previous outbreak was in Zaire, 1976: 280 deaths. UK, seasonal flu: typically 4,000–14,000. Globally: 3–5 million cases of severe disease; 200,000–500,000 deaths.
Mechanism of transmission Through body fluids Through physical contact and airborne transmission
Drug treatments ZMapp; experimental treatments; a cocktail of anti-Ebola antibodies Neuraminidase inhibitors (e.g. oseltamivir) have some effect, particularly if given early in infection
Vaccine Various vaccines are in development and undergoing clinical trials. Vaccines are being fast-tracked, with phase III trials run as part of efforts to control the current outbreak. An effective vaccine for seasonal flu is developed each year based on circulating flu strains. A vaccine for pandemic flu would need to be developed based on the virus strain responsible. Researchers hope to develop a universal vaccine effective against multiple strains.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Epidemics’ in January 2015.

Health, infection and disease, Medicine
Epidemics, Influenza special issue
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development