Saturday, October 18, 2014

DON'T PANIC! The Ebola Risk Is Not All It's Cracked Up To Be!

In case you hadn't heard, ebola panic has swept the United States. Note that I say ebola panic and not the disease itself. The latest is that a Texas nurse flew to Cleveland and may or may not have been contagious. The news is broadcasting stories of impending death and destruction almost non-stop and rumor has it a new ebola vaccine might be rushed out to deal with the "emergency".

Now is a time to take a page from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Grab a towel and don't panic. OK, you don't have to grab a towel.

Here is why everyone needs to calm down about ebola:

  • The possibility for spread to the United States has been there for almost 40 years. Ebola was first reported in 1976 and has had several reoccurrences since then, including one in 1995, which was the first most Americans heard of it. There were chances for it to spread to the US 20 years ago just like today. If you weren't panicking then, why panic today?
  • Ebola is not spread by casual contact. You have to come into direct contact with bodily fluids like blood, urine, semen, breast milk, through an open cut or sore or through mucous membranes to get it. So for a moment let's assume that the nurse from Texas who flew to Cleveland was, in fact, in a contagious state when she boarded the plane. Unless any of the passengers or flight attendants shared a needle with her or went for a swim in the plane's latrine, it's pretty unlikely that they would contract ebola. Eating meat from animals infected via bat bites or mourning rituals where people come into close contact with the corpse of someone who died from ebola are sources of transmission in Africa. Reusing needles in hospitals is another severe risk factor in many African hospitals as well.
  • If you work in health care, yes, you could potentially be at an increased risk for contracting the disease, but you're also at an increased risk for contracting Hepatitis B and HIV/AIDS every day too. If that hasn't been dominating your life since your career in health care started, why start fretting about ebola now? Take precautions and understand that in the extremely unlikely case you did contract ebola, you have better access to health care than many people in Africa and are far more likely to recover.
  • I think it is only fair to point out that the symptoms of ebola are very similar to those of many other diseases like meningitis. malaria and typhoid fever, all of which are infectious and continue to be a serious problem in many parts of Africa. Confirmation of actual ebola requires lab tests. Unless they are running lab tests on every single sick person in the affected areas of Liberia and Sierra Leone, some instances of other diseases may be reported as ebola and contribute to the hysteria.
Consider that often the panic and hysteria cause more problems than the disease itself. In 1976, a sick army private who was confined to quarters during basic training decided to nevertheless go on a long hike with an enormous pack in the dead of winter with his unit. He collapsed on the hike and died. He was found to be carrying the H1N1 strain of influenza, the same one said to be responsible for the 1918-1919 flu pandemic. The CDC decided that based on this one incident that another flu pandemic was coming and rushed out a vaccine. This proved to be a foolhardy decision as the new vaccine was found to carry an increased risk of Guillain-Barre Syndrome and more people died from receiving the vaccine than the actual disease itself. (The army private proved to be the only death from the pandemic that never did materialize.)

The reality is that Americans are exponentially more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, and car accidents than ebola. So if you really want to protect your health, eat more fruits and vegetables, drive carefully and stop worrying about ebola!

So let's review. In order to prevent ebola you should:
  • Not share needles with anyone. 
  • Not have sex with anyone who has been sick with ebola.
  • Not eat any meat from the African bush.
  • Not get bitten by bats from the African wilderness.
  • Not participate in funeral rituals which require you to come into direct contact with a corpse infected with ebola.
  • Observe protocols to prevent infection of all kinds if you work in health care.
I think these are all very do-able. So let's all take a deep breath and turn off the news.