Oh my gosh! There are cases of Ebola in the United States! Someone with Ebola has flown on a domestic airplane! Schools are closing in Texas! Let’s show photos of healthcare workers in Hazmat suits who look like they’re dressed for the Moon, and report on anyone who might have been exposed, whether or not they’ve come down with the virus!
If you want to sell newspapers or catch eyeballs on cable news, nothing works like fear, and the Ebola virus has proven to be a great way to play games with our collective startle reflex. Get ready for more breathless coverage, like the time when it made headlines when somebody sneezed on an aircraft.
There’s only one thing wrong about this: Ebola is not likely to become a health crisis, much less a global pandemic. In other words: it’s okay to calm down.
To date, four people in the U.S. and one Spanish nurse have contracted the deadly disease since its outbreak in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, three West-African nations which have, so far, experienced 1,000, 2,000 and 3,500 cases respectively. Ebola has spread as far as it has in those countries for a variety of reasons not present in the U.S. and Europe: dysfunctional health systems, people living in close proximity in slums with hygiene that would appall most Americans, a lack of trust in authorities, and years of armed civil strife. Remember, these are countries where there is a one in ten chance of catching cholera, and a higher incidence of malaria.
The thing to remember is, Ebola is not an air-borne disease. You don’t catch it by sitting next to somebody on the plane, which is why no cases were reported as a result of that now-famous flight to Atlanta–or, for that matter, on that flight taken by the first patient who eventually succumbed to the disease in Dallas. You catch Ebola through close contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is in the advanced stages of the disease, when the patient is vomiting and plagued by diarrhea. That’s why the only transmissions in the U.S. so far have been healthcare workers in close contact with the patients.
Other countries, with far less medical resources, have already faced Ebola and kept it from spreading to the general population. Senegal reported a single Ebola patient, who apparently never transmitted the disease to anyone thanks to local healthcare officials who immediately identified 74 people who had close contact with the patient. These people were monitored twice daily, and when five developed influenza-like symptoms, they were tested repeatedly. None had contracted the virus, but if they had, their isolation and monitoring meant that others would not have been infected.
There was a similar story in Nigeria, where an airline passenger collapsed on the tarmac, and the two co-workers who helped him into a cab to the hospital also contracted the virus. Nigerian authorities identified everyone who had come in contact with the sick people. In all, roughly 900 individuals were exposed, and they were identified and monitored. Eighteen of them contracted Ebola, and the plague ended there–in a country whose healthcare system is far from perfect, where one in five deaths is due to malaria, one of only three countries in the world where polio is still endemic.
The lesson here is that, unless you work in a hospital and have had close personal contact with an Ebola patient, there is virtually a zero chance you will contract the disease. It is even more unlikely that Ebola will grow into a national or global pandemic. It is an undeniable tragedy in West Africa, which could have been prevented if pharmaceutical companies had been following up on promising treatments in their laboratories. The U.S. Ebola scare has belatedly changed their priorities, but chances are the vaccine and the cure will actually be needed elsewhere.