© Josh Sager – October 2014
Ebola is a deadly disease that has been adopted by popular culture as the closest thing to a zombie-apocalypse virus that we can see in reality. Over the past year, the western world has stood by in horror as this deadly disease has ravaged Africa, and the media has hyped fear over a domestic infection.
Yesterday, the CDC confirmed that a currently-unnamed patient at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, TX, is infected with the Ebola virus (presumably the same Zaire strain of Ebola that is currently afflicting Africa). This infection represents the first case of Ebola on American soil (not counting the doctors who were brought here in quarantine for treatment) during the current outbreak.
Many will likely panic upon hearing that Ebola has reached the United States, but this reaction is one of pure emotion, not a rational assessment of the danger.
What is Ebola?
The Ebola virus is a hemorrhagic filo-virus (it is a follicle-shaped virus that causes bleeding) that is native to certain regions of Africa. Ebola is relatively rare and tends to infect people in defined outbreaks rather than acting as a chronic health threat (like the common cold).
Once infected, an individual is asymptomatic for between two days and three weeks, but then begins to develop fever, stomach, head and muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and bleeding from mucus membranes (ex. eyes and nose)—these symptoms accompany organ damage and internal bleeding. Approximately 83% of infected individuals have died from Ebola, but the fatality rate widely varies between outbreaks (fatality rates have ranged between 25% and 90%)
Ebola is only transmissible via an infected person’s body fluids (blood, sweat, tears, semen, saliva, etc.) and cannot survive outside of a host for long—people who do not die from the infection develop antibodies and become non-contagious, with the one noted exception that semen remains infected for weeks to months after the rest of the body is asymptomatic.
It is believed to originate in an animal host (probably bats and monkeys) and transition to the human population when a person eats an infected animal.
Fear-Mongering over Ebola
When we separate Ebola from the scare-mongering of the media and the ignorant, we are left with a dangerous virus that is primarily a threat to third-world nations. Because it is only transmitted by bodily fluids, Ebola is much easier to control than airborne threats like influenza. Developed nations with advanced infrastructures have far less reason to worry about Ebola than developing countries with poor sanitary infrastructures (ex. unlike in much of Africa, where infected bodies are often left on the street, the USA has the resources to properly dispose of infectious bodies). If Ebola begins to crop up in the United States, we have the capacity to fight back and will rapidly contain the infection.
There have been several Ebola infections in developed nations—including the USA, Italy, England and Russia—that most people don’t know about. People haven’t heard about these infections for the simple reason that they were contained and didn’t cause any real harm.
Any outbreak in the United States will accelerate the development of the Ebola serum, which has shown promise of dramatically reducing fatality rates (if a US infection was imminent, we would throw money at this serum and could mass-produce it). Additionally intervention to mitigate the symptoms of Ebola (ex. using an IV to replace lost blood) reduces the fatality rates of the virus, and we would be able to do this for all victims in our country.
In short, even if Ebola were to infect a significant number of Americans, we could save most of them in a way that a third world nation has not been able to (they cannot get enough clean bedding, never mind set up intravenous fluids for those infected).
At the end of the day, Ebola may not be a real threat to our nation, but it does draw the attention of the public. Scaremongering surrounding this disease gets great ratings for news outlets and may even be a political winner (ex. stirring up fears of infected undocumented immigrants), but it is not a fear that is based in reality. Reflexive and unrealistic fear creates a very bad mindset to make decisions in, and we must make sure that we don’t get bogged down in imaginary fears while ignoring real threats.