Five Reassuring Facts About Ebola
Last night, as I sat in the airport waiting for to return home from the CDC’s National Immunization Conference in Atlanta, I caught a glimpse of CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden speaking at special press conference. The news that an air traveler from Liberia was the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the United States seemed to attract quite a bit of attention among passengers waiting at the gate. While it appeared that many people were listening to Dr. Frieden’s comments, I couldn’t determine if their blank stares were due to fear or disinterest.
Honestly, there has been so much media attention on the Ebola outbreak over the past few months that I’ve refrained from writing about it. But now, in response to yesterday’s announcement of Ebola in the US, I feel it’s important to try to diffuse some of the fear and misinformation surrounding Ebola. So, in my “glass is half-full” approach, I’d like to offer a few reassuring thoughts to consider.
The Reassuring News
- Ebola is NOT an airborne illness. Unlike airborne viruses like measles, which can linger in a room as long as two hours after an infected patient has left, Ebola is only spread through direct contact with blood or body fluids such as urine, saliva, feces, vomit, and semen, or through contaminated objects and materials. And although the incubation period, (which is the time from exposure to the onset of symptoms), can range from as little as 2 days or as many as 21 days, (with the average being 8-10 days), the disease can only be spread by someone who is sick or exhibiting symptoms. Fortunately, Dr. Frieden confirmed that the patient who is now being treated in a Texas hospital was free of symptoms while traveling to the United States. This is all good news in helping to isolate this cases and any subsequent cases that may occur in the US.
- The risk to Americans is still extremely minimal. While we should continue to be concerned about the extent of the Ebola outbreaks in Africa, especially since there is no specific vaccine, medicine, or antiviral drug that has proven effective against this disease, we must recognize that the conditions are different in the US than they are in other parts of the world. Despite the particularly high fatality rate from Ebola (about 50%), the “tried and true” protocol for treatment of the symptoms can significantly improve a patient’s chances of survival. This includes providing intravenous fluids, maintaining oxygen status and blood pressure, balancing electrolytes and treating other infections as they occur. Americans are extremely fortunate to have access to advanced medical care and facilities that can provide these treatments in a timely manner. More importantly, infectious disease specialists working alongside our government agencies, like the CDC, have been critical in establishing very specific and effective protocols in regard to the treatment and isolation of infectious diseases worldwide and this will be extremely effective in helping to contain the disease in the US. CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H., explained, “Ebola can be scary. But there’s all the difference in the world between the U.S. and parts of Africa where Ebola is spreading. The United States has a strong health care system and public health professionals who will make sure this case does not threaten our communities. While it is not impossible that there could be additional cases associated with this patient in the coming weeks, I have no doubt that we will contain this.”
- This is NOT our first rodeo. The CDC has not only been a huge asset in the global response to Ebola, but several other Ebola patients have already been successfully treated here in the US. In fact, yesterday’s press conference revealed that the Texas hospital, where the current patient is being cared for, had recently completed special training in the care of an Ebola patient. Since the CDC has been anticipating this scenario, they have already begun to adequately prepare facilities across the country, which should be reassuring to Americans.
- Global health funding is becoming more of a priority. One of the best responses to this Ebola outbreak is that it has called for a renewed and more robust commitment to global health. The current epidemic has already claimed the lives of over 3,000 people and there has been an outcry for more resources. With the arrival of Ebola in the US, people may finally begin to understand how our individual health can be impacted by our global health. We need people to demand that the US continue to financially support strong global health partnerships in order to respond to, and eliminate the threat of, all infectious diseases, including Ebola throughout the world.
- Outbreaks help in the advancement of new vaccines. It can be very costly and time intensive for companies to develop and test new vaccines. However, as the current Ebola outbreak continues to take its toll, there is growing interest and investment in the development of safe and effective Ebola treatments and vaccines. This will undoubtedly help to advance the timeline and hopefully we’ll see a successful outcome that will ultimately save lives.
Unfortunately, fear is a very powerful emotion and it often works to distort a person’s perception of risk. We know this to be true in the case of vaccine refusal. Some people will decline vaccines because they are more afraid that they may suffer an adverse reaction to the vaccine than suffer from the illness that the vaccine helps prevent. And in the case of Ebola, some people are so fearful of the disease, with its high mortality rate and lack of preventive treatment, that they become convinced that the existence of Ebola in the US puts them in imminent danger.
I hear it in the panicky voice of my neighbor, whose child has a fever. I hear it in my friend who is considering canceling her upcoming travel plans. And I even heard it in the advice I received from my husband before I boarded the plane last night, “Just don’t sit next to any sick passengers on the plane, okay?” While we need to be realistic about the threat of this dangerous disease, we should be careful not to create panic and to realize that we are far more likely to die from influenza in the US this year than Ebola.
Since my daughter just finished reading Richard Preston’s nonfiction thriller The Hot Zone, she, like many others I’ve talked to about Ebola, have a genuine concern about the way in which Ebola patients suffer and the possibility of a widespread epidemic in this country. While Preston’s novel is based on actual events that occurred decades ago, we continue to make great strides in our fight against infectious diseases and with greater global cooperation we do even more.
My personal prediction is that one day Ebola will be nearly non-existent thanks to the introduction of a safe and effective vaccine. No doubt, when that happens, someone will eventually make the reckless claim that the vaccine is more dangerous than the disease. This, in turn, will result in someone else reminding us of the Ebola outbreak of 2014. Hopefully, by then, we will all be smart enough to realize that history is a terrible thing to have to repeat. I, for one, would be more than happy to suffer from a needle jab, a sore arm or even a mild fever if it means that we can prevent thousands of deaths from Ebola. How about you?