A patient admitted to New York City’s Mount Sinai hospital is being tested for Ebola after returning from West Africa, we recently reported. It is not yet known whether the patient actually has the virus. However, this past weekend, Dr. Kent Brantley, an American doctor who contracted Ebola while treating patients in Liberia, arrived at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.
The current outbreak of the deadly virus, which is thought to originate in bats, has killed more than 800 people in West Africa. Symptoms include fever, vomiting, diarrhoea, and often bleeding inside and outside the body.
A quick scan of recent headlines — “Ebola outbreak moving faster than efforts to contain it” or “Nigeria death shows Ebola can spread by air travel ” — makes it easy to jump to the conclusion that bringing Ebola patients to the United States is risky and could cause a similar outbreak here.
However, U.S. government officials and health experts say this is simply not true: Ebola will not spread through the United States like it has in West Africa.
“[T]he plain truth is that we can stop Ebola,” Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention told ABC’s “This Week.” “We know how to control it.”
Don’t Believe Everything You See In The Movies
Part of the fear about an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. stems from how the virus has been treated by Hollywood and the media.
“Ebola has a mystique about it because the way that it has been treated in fiction,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Center for Health Security, told Business Insider.
He specifically referenced the 1995 movie “Outbreak,” starring Cuba Gooding, Jr., which features a fictional Ebola-like virus. Richard Preston’s book The Hot Zone, a terrifying nonfiction thriller that inspired the movie, is another well-known reference.
While fictional stories just aren’t true-to-life, there are a few legitimately scary things about Ebola.
The symptoms are viscerally horrifying, and treatments and vaccines against the disease don’t exist at this time.
And because scientists aren’t totally sure how the virus outbreaks jump to humans, there is also the fear of the unknown. “The outbreaks are mysterious, they appear out of nowhere, they’re explosive and then they disappear,” says Adalja.
All of these factors work to fuel a panic mentality. But in the United States, Canada, Europe, and most countries with well-developed health care systems, Ebola poses almost no real risk, because patients can be isolated and treated without spreading the virus.
Don’t Panic: The Virus Doesn’t Spread Very Efficiently
Ebola “doesn’t spread very efficiently through humans,” says Adalja.
While the virus is deadly, it’s not very contagious. Unlike the common cold or the flu, which spreads through airborne droplets, Ebola can only spread through contact with bodily fluids, like blood, vomit, and diarrhoea.
Adalja also points out that Ebola is less contagious than Middle East Respiratory Syndrome, or MERS, which recently arrived in the United States but was contained. No secondary cases, meaning new cases spread by the individuals who had arrived to the country already infected, were reported.
“Ebola is a very rare disease that infects a very small number of people,” says Adalja. “It doesn’t have that same type of burden of illness of other diseases like malaria, tuberculosis, HIV.”
Why The United States Is Different
The two American patients are being treated in a special biocontainment unit. But this is an extra precaution as the patients could be treated at a normal hospital that follows proper isolation procedures.
One of the main reasons that the virus has killed so many people in West Africa is because healthcare infrastructure in the region is extremely limited, meaning that hospitals — where they even exist — are understaffed and don’t have the same technology as those in the United States. That means the monitoring and isolation techniques that are relatively routine in many modern hospitals often can’t be implemented.
That being said, the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is cause for international concern.
Reuters reported on Sunday that the bodies of Ebola victims were left in the streets of Liberia’s capital Monrovia for four days before being removed by health workers. It will require the combined effort of many countries and resources to get the epidemic under control. The CDC announced earlier this week that the U.S. plans to send 50 disease control specialists to the region.
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