How Worried Do You Need To Be About Ebola?

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A picture taken on July 24, 2014 shows staff of the Christian charity Samaritan's Purse putting on protective gear in the ELWA hospital in the Liberian capital Monrovia. (Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty)

Nearly 700 people have died from an outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa. One man, an American, died in Lagos after having been infected by the virus in Liberia. With borders closing and concern about infected passengers on planes, Stephen Morse, epidemiologist from the the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, explains how an outbreak like this one can be contained and why it is unlikely that Ebola will spread to the U.S.

Don't Freak Out. What We Learned About This Ebola Outbreak

  • Is this the worst outbreak ever? It's the largest number of cases, and the longest on record. It’s also in an area that hasn’t experienced Ebola before, so Stephen Morse says local officials are “on a learning curve.”
  • How fatal is it? It is often fatal, though not always – the mortality rate can be brought down with “intensive care.” Generally, it is 50% fatal when treated, 90% fatal without care.
  • Is it like in the movies? No surprise, Hollywood has often overblown how bad Ebola can look. The bleeding from the orifices happens in the movies all the time, but only happens half the time. (That's comforting news, we think?)
  • Can I catch it? Morse made it clear that Ebola spreads “only by close contact with infected secretions…or tissues of infected patients. It does not spread by casual contact or the respiratory system like the flu or SARS.” Preventing the spread, then, is about preventing direct contact with blood, saliva, or internal organs.
  • What can locals do? Early government communication can help spread the word that gloves and masks should be worn when community members bury their dead. A lot of the spread can be prevented through “normal medical cautions” – though of course health care professionals will play a role as well.
  • What can the U.S. do? The U.S. can provide personnel, and training for local doctors who are unfamiliar with these kinds of outbreaks. Medical equipment for both civilians and for medical personnel also helps. At the moment, the U.S. personnel is “spread very thin,” says Morse. The CDC has only about a dozen people in the area.
  • Can Ebola reach the U.S.? Morse says it's “quite likely that someone [with Ebola] will get on a plane and land here.” So containing it depends on recognizing and quarantining that patient quickly. “If that’s done rigorously, it shouldn’t cause an outbreak, because it’s not spread that easily.” Ironically, hospitals are one of the places that the disease has spread the most in the past, through shared needles or unsanitary conditions. But in the U.S., modern hospital practice does a good job of containing infected patients. Here's more on why a U.S. outbreak is unlikely even if the disease arrives.
  • On a scale of "people, stop panicking, you're overreacting" up to "be afraid, be very afraid" where are we? "I'd put it at a 1 or a 2... If you're there casually or on a plane or if you're here in the city, I don't think there's much reason to be very afraid at all." 


Dr. Stephen Morse

Comments [10]

lisa vives from New York

Is Dr. Morse overlooking the large Liberian, Sierra Leonean and Guinean populations in New York? Even if the airlines would double check visitors from these countries, others may be flying out of neighboring countries (Nigeria, for one, where there's already been an Ebola death; Ivory Coast (shares an ethnic group); Burkina Faso, and more. Since these countries are strapped to the limit and have few doctors and fewer hospital beds, we are all at risk. As Decontee Parker of Minnesota - whose husband just died of Ebola in Nigeria - said: “Patrick could've easily come home with Ebola... It's close, it's at our front door. It knocked down my front door."

Jul. 31 2014 10:49 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

Two things I think Dr. Morse has neglected to mention:

The health care workers who work long hours and get very tired are more susceptible to any infectious disease and are less able to fight it because lack of rest compromises one's immune system.

Also, health care workers, as they are more likely to be exposed to various infectious diseases, are more likely to transmit them during their incubation period. Any health care workers who treat ebola patients need to be quarantined for a week before being permitted to treat other patients (and before traveling) so they can't inadvertently transmit any pathogens they may have acquired.

Jul. 30 2014 10:50 AM
Tony from Canarsie

Take two chill pills and call me in the morning.

Jul. 30 2014 10:49 AM
Sandy from Manhattan

I think your guest is being reckless with his advice to the caller who is nervous about returning to his native country.

Jul. 30 2014 10:46 AM

Sigh, I was a Peace Corps worker and in 1980 sent to a town that was 200 km away from the site where there was an Ebola outbreak the year before and the volunteers were evacuated. Wasn't worried then and not worried now.

I am not worried about Ebola in the United States. Ebola usually passes quickly unfortunately because people die quickly. It really can be contained with proper infectious disease control measures and equipment. This can be quite challenging in some settings in Africa, where gloves and masks are not readily available. In some area soap is hard to find.

What amazes me is how people are now thinking that immigrants who enter through the southern borders of the the United States which is totally wacked.

So, is the caller saying that ICUs don't have proper infectious disease control measures? What kind of lousy infectious disease control measures do they employ?

Jul. 30 2014 10:39 AM
John from office

Sheldon, don't give people ideas, the House is already suing the President.

Does any good news come out of Africa, the land of AIDS?

This and the earlier story about Polio and the Taliban really make you wonder anout the world and the low level of education out there, that people believe these crazy ideas.

Jul. 30 2014 10:38 AM
Charlatan Muzzelwait

@ Sheldon - yes I think we can blame this outbreak, along with everything else that's wrong in the world on Obama.

Jul. 30 2014 10:38 AM

Can ebola be transmitted by taking some infected fluids, mixing with water and then spraying in a crowded place to infect?

Jul. 30 2014 10:31 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Lets just blame Obama.

Jul. 30 2014 10:20 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Should we be worried that an Islamist terrorist group may want to send a jihadi, several of the "we crave death" type, infected with Ebola on a plane to Europe or the Americas?

Jul. 30 2014 08:19 AM

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