WASHINGTON, August 26, 2014 – A Harvard School of Public Health poll taken between August 13 and 17 finds that 39 percent of Americans are concerned that there will be a major outbreak of Ebola hemorrhagic fever in the U.S. within a year.
Twenty-six percent fear that a member of their immediate family could get sick from Ebola within a year.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, those fears don’t match reality. The threat of an Ebola outbreak in the United States is extremely low. The U.S. has the resources to quickly isolate suspected cases of Ebola and to stop its spread through a community.
The Ebola virus is not airborne. It is highly infectious through blood, vomit and diarrhea, but it requires direct bodily contact with those fluids or an open sore. “Highly infectious” does not mean “easily transmitted.”
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Fears of Ebola are heightened by several factors. One is intensive media coverage, which has made people highly aware of Ebola without making them aware of the low odds of spread. A common psychological phenomenon is that we become more risk sensitive when we hear news of an accident or disaster. After an airline disaster, for instance, subjective estimates of the likelihood of being killed in an airplane crash rise.
The same phenomenon is at play now. News of the outbreak has given it an immediacy that makes the odds of contracting the virus seem much greater than they are.
The impact of news reporting is heightened by popular entertainment. There have been a number of movies and TV programs involving the spread of a virus – everything from deadly flu to hemorrhagic fever to zombie viruses – that make the development of an epidemic seem much easier than it is.
Outbreak, a 1995 film starring Dustin Hoffman, dealt with the spread of a hemorrhagic fever from Africa to the United States. Death by the Ebola-like virus in that film (and in the book it came from, “The Hot Zone”) was much more spectacular than in real life, and the virus was much more contagious, being carried on aerosols.
“Executive Orders,” a 1996 book by Tom Clancy also dealt with an Ebola outbreak, this one engineered by foreign terrorists and Iran. The 2011 film “Contagion” looked at the explosive spread of a lethal flu. “The Last Ship,” a series playing on TNT, involves a global pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population.
Ebola doesn’t spread like flu, nor does it liquefy the victim’s internal organs. While it is deadly, almost half the people infected in this outbreak have not died. Even in conditions that seem almost designed to maximize the spread of the virus, fewer than 3,000 people in four countries have been infected since the outbreak began in March.
People who have paid close attention to this story understand that Ebola doesn’t spread like wildfire, but viral epidemics remain terrifying. There is no cure, and in the case of Ebola, catching the disease is still usually fatal. Watching the news about the Ebola outbreak is a look at something genuinely scary, the next worst thing to actually being in a horror movie.
Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the CDC, was recently in Liberia, one of the nations hardest hit by the Ebola outbreak. He pointed out that progress is being made, but added, “the virus still has the upper hand.” He said on Liberian TV, “Ebola doesn’t spread by mysterious means, we know how it spreads, so we have the means to stop it from spreading, but it requires tremendous attention to every detail.”
Ebola is a terrible disease, but it isn’t a horror movie. It can be contained. Were it not hitting nations with very few doctors and very few resources, it would have been contained by now.
According to the World Health Organization, Ebola at the last count had sickened 2,615 people, killing 1,427. That includes 240 health care workers infected and more than 120 killed.
About the Ebola virus and Ebola fever
Ebola virus was discovered in 1976, near the Ebola River in Congo. It is one of a group of viruses that cause hemorrhagic fevers. Others are Lassa fever virus, Hantavirus, Marburg virus, yellow fever virus, and dengue fever virus. Some, like Hantavirus and yellow fever virus occur in the Americas. Hantavirus is harbored among rodents in Colorado and New Mexico.
Every case of Ebola fever contracted outside a medical lab has occurred in Africa. Ebola virus has an incubation period in humans of 2 to 21 days, with an average of about 8 days. When symptoms hit, they include a fever greater than 101.5 degrees F, severe headache, diarrhea, vomiting, weakness and loss of appetite.
Healthcare workers and family members are at the greatest risk of infection from someone who already has the virus. This is because infection is spread through body fluids – blood, sweat, semen, urine, vomit and feces – or through equipment contaminated with those fluids. If healthcare workers don’t wear protective clothing, or if contaminated materials aren’t sterilized or properly disposed of, the disease can spread very rapidly through a hospital.
If proper containment procedures are followed, the spread can always be stopped.
The best way to prevent infection is to wear protective clothing and isolate patients. If you must travel where Ebola is present, practice careful hygiene. Don’t contact bodily fluids from others, or touch items that might be contaminated. Don’t come into contact with bats or nonhuman primates.
The outbreak of Ebola in Africa is a slow-motion disaster, but if international agencies can provide enough assistance, it will be stopped. It has almost zero chance of becoming a disaster anywhere else.