The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has recently come to the U.S. — not because of the disease's uncontrolled spread, but as a deliberate decision to allow two Americans infected with the disease to receive treatment. On Monday, another man who had recently been overseas exhibited symptoms of the disease at NYC's Mount Sinai hospital. Doctors quickly concluded it was probably not Ebola, but some minor panic ensured nonetheless.
It's no secret that many Americans are worried about the epidemic, which is devastating parts of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and has seen patients end up in Nigeria and Morocco. This fear is misplaced. In reality, Americans are so safe from Ebola that worrying about it is pretty much offensive to those unfortunate enough to be contracting the disease overseas. Here are five reasons you shouldn't be concerned:
1. It's not airborne, unless you're a pig
Thanks to a 2012 study that found Ebola viruses could jump from infected pigs to non-human primates without physical contact, an unfortunate widespread perception that the disease could become airborne has developed. The only problem with this notion? Humans aren't swine and pigs are probably just better at spewing the virus into the air.
This is relevant information if the disease in question is, say, swine flu. But infectious disease epidemiologist Tara C. Smith writes that "unless you're sitting next to an Ebola-infected pig, seriously, airborne transmission of Ebola viruses isn't a big concern."
If you do meet that very specific criteria, please call the CDC; otherwise, carry on.
2. It's pretty incredibly hard to contract
Humans are primarily at risk of catching Ebola from an infected person's bodily fluids: blood, sweat, saliva and waste. It does not spread through the air, food or water and while it can stay alive on surfaces for several days, transmission usually occurs from direct physical contact with late-stage Ebola victims or their corpses.
This is a grave problem in countries like Sierra Leone with terrible or non-existent public sanitation and where people often bury their dead. Likewise, poorly equipped hospitals and staff unprepared to deal with Ebola — which has mostly been concentrated in Central, not Western, Africa — have contributed to the crisis.
The U.S., with its modern sanitation systems, well-stocked hospitals and strict infectious disease protocols, can probably relax.
3. It's not nearly as lethal as you think
Health officials claim the current outbreak has killed somewhere around 60% of its victims. That's terrifying in and of itself and the eventual death toll may be higher, but it's still lower than previous Ebola outbreaks which killed up to 90% of victims. Authorities credit the lower death rate to improved detection rates and supportive care, demonstrating that medical advancements are having a real and significant impact.
Americans have an inflated sense of Ebola's danger thanks to Richard Preston's The Hot Zone, which described it as an ultra-infectious, organ-liquefying nightmare. While it's still a terrifying disease, The Hot Zone was somewhat sensational and its depiction of Ebola was a bit exaggerated. Ebola is still very dangerous, but access to good doctors with modern equipment and techniques could curb much of its lethality.
4. The U.S. has contained similar diseases before
Just a few months ago, the Centers for Disease Control isolated and contained a patient in Minnesota who brought another deadly disease to the U.S. from Africa: Lassa fever, Ebola's less ugly but still very dangerous cousin. As WIRED's Superbug blog noted, it was actually the seventh time an air traveler carried a hemorrhagic fever on a plane into the U.S.
In pretty much every instance, the infected person failed to spread the disease to other people and in most cases, the traveler was quickly isolated in a hospital. Now that health authorities and international airports are spooked by the ongoing outbreak, the chances of an Ebola-infected person slipping through the grid are even lower.
5. There's actually an experimental treatment
There is no cure for Ebola and treatment of its victims is typically limited to supportive care: things like IV fluids or respirators to aid breathing. But two American volunteers infected with the disease may survive thanks in part to a potentially life-saving experimental serum.
The general public has access to few details about the serum, a monoclonal antibody produced by harvesting antibodies from infected laboratory mice. The antibodies help prevent the Ebola infection from spreading further throughout the body. Both Americans given the treatment have improved significantly.
The Atlantic's James Hamblin notes that the antibodies probably have to be administered very soon after infection or they are useless and there's very little of the rare drug available. It is likely the two U.S. citizens given the serum were only granted access to it under compassionate care laws, which allow for experimental treatments on patients suffering from terminal disease. But there's a good chance that if you were unfortunate enough to contract the disease in the U.S., they'd cut you in on the deal.