As you may be aware, Ebola has been a hot topic in the media recently, given the current outbreak in Africa. As an epidemiologist with a master’s degree in Public Health, I get really “excited” whenever I get a chance to talk about this virus.
Ebola is my “favorite” virus — or rather, it’s the virus that I find most intriguing because it’s the kind of infectious agent your nightmares would create if they were the writers for some horror movie.
There are many reasons why people are terrified to contract the Ebola virus disease. One reason is that there is no known cure for Ebola; the deadliest strains have been known to kill 90 percent of the people they infect.
Once infected, the host can experience the discomfort of flu-like symptoms, which can quickly progress to the infamous internal and external bleeding and hemorrhaging of internal organs and bodily orifices associated with the disease.
All of this can happen to you in less than two weeks’ time.
So, you can see why the media is so quick to jump on the current outbreak affecting parts of Africa and generate a sense of concern among the masses.
I’ve seen many headlines that discuss how this monster of an infectious agent can wreak havoc on the world and become a nightmare for public health.
But, not so fast! I’m here to explain why you shouldn’t freak out about Ebola. If you’re concerned about your safety and worried about some kind impending doom that this current outbreak presents, here are five reasons to reconsider:
1. Ebola Is Poorly Transmitted
If you sought to make an ideal virus to infect people and cause a massive burden of disease on the world, there are certain characteristics you would definitely want to give it. You would need to increase the likelihood of it coming into contact with its host and offer multiple, efficient modes of transmission.
Many viruses accomplish this by being infectious through contact and (especially) through the air when aerosolized by coughing and sneezing, being viable at a wide temperature range (both hot and cold), and being able to survive for long periods of time outside of the host. Other characteristics for being a successful infectious agent can exist, as well.
Ebola can ONLY be transmitted by direct contact with a person who is infected with the virus and is also symptomatic via exchange of bodily fluids. As far as virus transmissions go, this is an incredible disadvantage.
Unless the person is sneezing and projectile coughing blood at someone (which is highly unlikely), you cannot catch EVD in an aerosolized form like you could catch, say, influenza.
Furthermore, you cannot catch Ebola as a food-borne illness or through water, which makes it that much more difficult to contract. Being only transmittable through direct contact limits how quickly and easily Ebola can spread.
Direct contact means that the virus can only really infect a few people (at best) at a time before it can be reported and effectively contained.
Also, since a person must show symptoms to infect someone, the likelihood of close contact and the exchange of bodily fluids becomes more unlikely (more on that in a second).
2. Asymptomatic Individuals are not Contagious
As the CDC points out, those infected with Ebola but do not present symptoms are not contagious. This means that if you are in contact with someone who has contracted Ebola and is in the infectious period of EVD, you cannot catch the virus.
By contrast, many viruses (like viral STDs and influenza), can infect a host and make the host contagious before symptoms show.
This, in turn, makes the host able to unknowingly spread the virus effectively from one person to another and greatly increase its prevalence in the population before a person knows whether or not he or she is infected.
You are unlikely to want to be in contact with somebody who is presenting EVD symptoms. At this point, you would probably, more or less, know to keep your distance from a person if the person is quarantined already.
Since Ebola transmits via close contact, it’s difficult for the virus to be sneaky enough to infect a lot of people before public health efforts know what is happening.
3. Ebola Kills Its Host Too Quickly
Another characteristic of an effective infectious agent is that it doesn’t kill its host too quickly. If you think about it, a virus that uses its host to further spread its existence would probably want its host to stay alive as long as possible so that it can keep infecting multiple people.
Ebola can kill its host in less than two weeks. By 20 days’ time, a person will present symptoms and Ebola will start to run its course.
This is not a good thing for a virus because the host dies way too quickly for it to mobilize or come into contact with other people and further spread the virus.
4. Ebola Is Easily Contained And Controlled
This kind of relates to all of the stuff I’ve discussed above. Since Ebola can’t spread through anything but direct contact, it’s easy to put the necessary steps in place to successfully quarantine someone who is infectious to the population and stop the disease from spreading.
With proper protocol, identifying infected individuals and putting up the proper barriers can successfully control an Ebola outbreak.
5. There Are More Common Diseases With A Greater Public Health Burden
There are many other infectious diseases that are more common, which should all worry more than Ebola. The current Ebola outbreak we are seeing right now is a lot more severe and unlike any Ebola outbreak we have ever seen before.
However, by comparison, there were an estimated 170,000 worldwide deaths in 2012 due to multidrug-resistant tuberculosis. In that same year, an estimated 473,000-789,000 deaths occurred due to malaria.
Lower respiratory infections also account for a massive number of worldwide deaths each year.
So, this current outbreak of Ebola still has a ways to go before it reaches the level of the most severe infectious diseases that you are more likely to encounter.
While the current outbreak of Ebola is an important public health issue that we must address, it is important that we don’t buy into the shock and panic.
Unless you plan to visit the affected regions of Africa anytime soon, you’re probably in the clear.
Top Photo Credit: Getty Images