How Worried Do You Need To Be About Ebola?

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.

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."