How Much Do We Need to Worry About Ebola, Really?
You’ve seen the scary headlines and the terrifying photos of health care providers in protective gear, but how much do you know about ebola? If you believe the media, this tiny question mark-shaped filovirus is out to get you, and few things are standing between you and a global pandemic.
Good news for us: Ebola isn’t actually that dangerous, and it’s actually pretty terrible at communicability. While ebola is a disease with an unusually high mortality rate, and it is a serious issue when outbreaks occur, it’s unlikely to spread and focused medical attention can greatly reduce the risks for patients and their surrounding communities. While organizations working on the ground in regions affected by ebola need support, it’s important to resist scaremongering and the potential risks that come with it, including xenophobic attitudes about nations with ongoing ebola outbreaks.
Here are some things to know about ebola, and some information to shoot at people who want to tell you that the risks of contracting it are high.
1. Ebola only spreads among humans through direct contact with infected body fluids, and is not airborne
It is not a respiratory disease. This viral hemorrhagic fever spreads through contact with blood and body fluids, and typically goes through a community as the result of traditional burial practices, and for no other reason. In communities with ongoing outbreaks, public health officials have worked with community leaders and families to adapt traditional funeral practices to accommodate cultural needs while reducing the spread of disease. Meanwhile, ebola hasn’t gone airborne for humans, and likely never will.
Why is the summer 2014 outbreak spreading more than usual? Part of the reason may be traveling family members who attend funerals and carry the virus home (the incubation period is approximately seven days). It may also be the result of scaremongering in local communities, which leads people to hide sick family members from healthcare workers, creating dangerous situations.
If someone has a history of ebola infection but is now healthy, you can’t catch the virus from that individual, and you won’t get infected from contact with someone incubating it, either. You can only get infected by being around someone with symptoms, which you’re going to notice, since they include bruising, bleeding, fever, and vomiting (though not all patients bleed externally, and the showy, TV drama “bleeding from every orifice” form of ebola is a myth).
3. Regional governments are screening outgoing travelers carefully
No nation wants to see ebola spread beyond its borders, and a number of failsafes are in place to identify people who have been exposed to ebola, along with those who have it. Individuals with the disease are not being allowed to travel, and must undergo treatment before they can proceed to their final destination.
4. The CDC has an extremely detailed plan in place for safely evacuating infected Americans
In the past, the CDC has had to evacuate infected epidemiologists, doctors and researchers from hot spots all over the world. They have a very complex and careful protocol for every step of the process, which allows for the transport of patients in complete isolation, inside specialized transport vehicles, with highly-trained personnel. Patients moved from infected regions to the United States for care will receive attentive care during transport and they’ll arrive into quarantined, extremely secure facilities. Should an infected individual be removed to the United States, as two people recently were, they won’t be spreading the virus anywhere.
5. Ebola’s mortality rate is greatly exaggerated
100%, right? Once you’re infected, you’re a goner. Think again. In fact, in some outbreaks the disease has killed only 25% of patients, though it can climb up to 90%. While these odds aren’t great, they’re better than reported, and patient outcomes can depend on factors like available treatments, the training of personnel, and more. In affected regions of Africa, conditions are often suboptimal for management and treatment of severe infectious disease, especially once more patients start arriving, and this can make the problem more acute.
6. Ebola doesn’t spread through food, water, or infected animals
Despite fears and a report demonstrating experimental transmission of ebola to macaques in a U.S. lab, this virus isn’t found in food or water supplies, and people can’t contract it through animals. While the source of the natural reservoir of ebola isn’t understood yet, that reservoir isn’t going to spontaneously pop up somewhere else — the virus likely exists at a low background rate all the time, and when conditions are right, it blooms. It’s also worth noting that lab results can’t necessarily be replicated in the outside world, and the genetic differences between humans and macaques make that study less than helpful for predicting transmission routes (yet another argument against animal experimentation).
If you’re worried about ebola, turn “Outbreak” off, close the newspaper and donate to Doctors Without Borders, an organization that works on the ground worldwide to address outbreaks of diseases like ebola. While their ebola effort is currently fully funded, an unrestricted donation will allow them to do great work somewhere in the world to protect public health.
Photo credit: European Commission DG ECHO.