The CDC today confirmed the first case of Ebola virus diagnosed in the United States. While it is not the first case of Ebola to reach US shores — American health care workers in West Africa have been transported to US hospitals — it is the first case of an individual receiving the diagnosis while on American soil rather than being diagnosed in West Africa.
US media outlets did their best to ramp up the scare tactics in their headlines to drive up web traffic rather than inform the public in a calm and responsible way.
The conservative Fox News blared the headline “EBOLA HITS AMERICA”, as if it was a terrorist attack on US soil. Left-leaning Huffington Post was not a whole lot better, sounding the alarm with an “EBOLA IN US” headline.
The New York Times had a much more informative headline: “Airline Passenger With Ebola Is Under Treatment in Dallas”. That same New York Times piece has a good background on the Ebola case in Dallas:
A man who took a commercial flight from Liberia that landed in Dallas on Sept. 20 has been found to have the Ebola virus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Tuesday. He is the first traveler to have brought the virus to the United States on a passenger plane.
He was not ill during the flight, health officials said. Symptoms developed several days after he arrived, and he is being treated at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.
A team from the C.D.C. is being dispatched to Dallas to trace any contacts who may have been infected, including health care workers and others with whom the patient spent time in Dallas.
Even more important than the case in Dallas are the medical facts about the Ebola virus. This is the information that will save lives and prevent infection. Please share this information with your friends and family to stop the misinformation about Ebola.
Here are some major points that you need to know:
- Ebola does not spread easily
- Ebola is not contagious until symptoms are present
- Ebola has been around for a long time
- US health care systems are prepared
- Nigeria’s Ebola outbreak has been contained
- Ebola thrives in tropical climates
Ebola is not an airborne virus. Simply coming into contact with a person that has Ebola will not result in infection. According to the World Health Organization, transmission occurs only when a person comes into contact with an infected person’s blood, vomit, semen, or secretions. In other words, it is a difficult virus to contract.
Aside from the fact that Ebola does not spread easily, the fact that an infected person is not contagious until symptoms are present is equally important to know. Why? The symptoms are not something that you can conceal very easily: vomiting, diarrhea, internal and external bleeding, among others.
The Ebola outbreak of 2014 is not a new phenomenon — it’s just worse than in the past due to the slow international response and the fact that people in the region are more mobile than in the past. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been combating Ebola outbreaks in West Africa for nearly forty years.
The outbreaks in West Africa have occurred due to poor sanitation, a lack of quality health care systems or prevention methods, and a number of other reasons that are not prevalent in the US (such as medically risky burial rituals).
Not only does the United States have the health care system in place to deal with the Ebola virus, we already have prevention methods in place for other diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis that will also be useful against Ebola, as the transmission methods are similar. American patients are being physically quarantined until they recover, reducing the potential risk to other patients.
Proving the point that advanced health care systems are effective against Ebola, the New York Times reported today that Nigeria has successfully contained its Ebola outbreak.
“For those who say it’s hopeless, this is an antidote — you can control Ebola,” said CDC Director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden.
Nigeria is the largest country in Africa with nearly 200 million people. It is a major transportation and trade hub for the region. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone each have a GDP per capita of approximately $1,000 or less. Nigeria is roughly five times that — not a wealthy country by any means, but one that is capable of a decent health response.
Ebola, like many diseases, thrives in tropical climates. The animals linked to Ebola come from isolated tropical regions far away from the United States. These include apes and fruit bats, which can infect a person through consumed meat.
Some have posited that climate change could worsen Ebola outbreaks in the future, but this is speculative as research has shown that Ebola is more closely linked to changes in precipitation than temperature. As the Washington Post writes:
Scientific and health organizations have long held that climate change poses risks to human health, that warming may expand the range of certain water- and air-borne diseases. For example, given that it thrives in warm water, Cholera has been found to correlate with rising sea surface temperature. And while adaptive measures like improved medical care and vaccines could control their spread, Malaria, Dengue fever, and Lyme disease are all expected to expand in geographical area as global temperature increases, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
So while other diseases may increase due to climate change, the verdict is not yet out on Ebola.
The bottom line
It does not serve any good to stir a panic over a virus that is easily preventable and unlikely to spread in societies with advanced health care systems. “Crying wolf” will only make health officials’ jobs that much more difficult when a real emergency does take place.
Unless you are planning a trip to West Africa or are a health care worker in a hospital treating an Ebola patient (and you have direct contact with the patient), you are not likely to contract Ebola. Health care workers are at the greatest risk due to their intimate contact with infected but doctors and nurses can avoid infection with proper medical procedures.
So no, you are not going to die from Ebola, no matter what you hear on TV.