Ebola transmission not airborne? Don’t count on it

Ebola transmission not airborne? Don’t count on it

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CDC says you can spread Ebola here, but you can't catch it. / Photo: TokyoForm, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
CDC says you can spread Ebola here, but you can't catch it. / Photo: TokyoForm, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, October 17, 2014 — As news about the Ebola virus continues to dominate the news cycle, one previous near certainty about the disease is falling by the wayside: the conventional wisdom among medical authorities that Ebola virus cannot be transmitted by air.

Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, testified to Congress yesterday that he was confident Ebola would continue to spread exclusively through bodily fluids. “We don’t believe it is spreading in any other way. We are confident this is not airborne transmission.”

The conventional wisdom on airborne transmission is based on the premise that the virus — and our knowledge of it — is immutable:

“Ebola is more-or-less the same as it was in 1976,” when it was discovered, Ian Jones, professor of virology at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, told The Wall Street Journal. “Most viruses, once they’ve established a way of life, stick with it.”

However, some medical professionals are expressing doubt regarding what’s possible and what’s not with regard to Ebola.

“We can never say never, but I just don’t think the risk is very high,” said Thomas Geisbert, professor at the University of Texas at Galveston who co-discovered the Reston strain of Ebola.

Dr. David Sanders, a professor in the Biological Science department at Purdue University, told Fox & Friends on Wednesday that while there is no evidence now that the virus has airborne transmission, the possibility of mutation is real, even if the risk is low.

“Our own research that we published with our collaborators, demonstrates that Ebola has the inherent capacity to enter lung tissue, human lung tissue, just as influenza does.”

And there are epidemiologists who not only acknowledge the possibility of airborne transmission, but are convinced that it is a risk that has to be accounted for.

An expert on the disease’s African origins who has researched previous appearances of the virus says that his studies on the 1995 outbreak in the Congo showed some evidence that Ebola had been transmitted through the air. “We just don’t have the data to exclude it,” Dr. C.J. Peters, a professor at the University of Texas at Galveston, told the Los Angeles Times.

Dr. Jane Orient, director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons, recently said:

“Your body fluids have to go through the air, unless you touch somebody. You generate an aerosol if you cough or sneeze or vomit or have explosive diarrhea — and it makes droplets of different sizes. The ones that are really, really tiny can get through your mask, around your mask, down into your lungs,” Orient said, adding that these droplets could infect “target cells down in your lungs.”

And in a final note of caution, the Public Health Agency of Canada issued a statement on its website regarding new findings from laboratory research they conducted:

“In the laboratory, infection through small-particle aerosols has been demonstrated in primates, and airborne spread among humans is strongly suspected, although it has not yet been conclusively demonstrated. The importance of this route of transmission is not clear. Poor hygienic conditions can aid the spread of the virus.”

“Has not yet been conclusively demonstrated.” The Guinean EBOV strain, which is the strain of the virus that medical professionals are confronting, is a new strain of Ebola.

The safest assumption that you can make about Ebola is that the established rules of the road regarding transmission may have changed.

As a practical matter, it should be taken into account that the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO) are not in full agreement on the factors of transmission.

All are agreed that it is at least theoretically possible to contract a virus like Ebola by touching a surface that an infected Ebola victim has sneezed or somehow ejected mucous onto, and then touching one’s eyes or mouth.

They also admit that if an infected person were to sneeze or cough close to your face, you could contract Ebola.

A reasonable precaution to take in public areas is to routinely apply an anti-bacterial hand sanitizer of the portable type, and to use disinfectant wipes on surfaces that you don’t trust. Why? Because estimates of the time that the virus remains viable on a surface range from several hours to a day.

The CDC advises, “Limited laboratory studies under favorable conditions indicate that Ebolavirus can remain viable on solid surfaces, with concentrations falling slowly over several days.”

Take care, take precaution and take the prevailing wisdom on Ebola with a judicious grain of salt.


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