10 Myths Clearly Busted about Ebola - dummies

10 Myths Clearly Busted about Ebola

By Edward K. Chapnick

Over the course of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, a lot of media coverage, online banter, all kinds of analysis, and water cooler chatter have been running rampant. What’s fact, what are guesses, and what are downright myths? The following list zeros in on some of the most common myths about Ebola and busts them.

Ebola is highly contagious

Although Ebola is highly infectious (meaning that it doesn’t take much of the virus to infect someone), it isn’t very contagious (capable of being transmitted from one person to another) — especially in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. It’s actually rather difficult to catch Ebola.

Why? Infected body fluids have to come in direct contact with your mucus membranes or a skin opening.

Ebola isn’t airborne, which means that if an infected patient sneezes large droplets of body fluid into the air, the virus doesn’t just stay there, like say, chickenpox germs do.

Ebola has a cure and a vaccine

Ebola has neither a cure nor a vaccine — at least not yet. Scientists are fast-tracking their research and development, and it looks promising. Some say experimental vaccines could be shipped to West Africa as early as January or February of 2015.

Progress also is being made on the treatment and cure front; however, its fate is a little less clear. The experimental drug, ZMapp, created by Mapp Biopharmaceutical, has been given to a small handful of patients (all non-West Africans), and most of them survived. The problem is that the pharmaceutical company is out of the drug, and it’s unknown when more will be available.

Ebola is a death sentence

Ebola isn’t necessarily a death sentence. In West Africa, surviving Ebola is less likely, because West African countries don’t have any of the needed health infrastructure (such as enough doctors — before the outbreak, Liberia had one doctor for every 100,000 people) that could’ve addressed the outbreak before it reached the current level, or treat it fully now that it’s in full swing.

As long as you identify and report symptoms immediately and get medical care early, your chances of survival are better. People who have Ebola need urgent hospitalization in order to survive because — among other things — they need the following:

  • IV fluids

  • Pain medication

  • Monitoring of organ function

  • Intensive nursing

Anyone who has Ebola symptoms should be isolated

Isolating (separating a person in a special medical room or ward for the duration of treatment) anyone who has Ebola symptoms is a severe overreaction that would lead to unnecessary resource drain and public hysteria. Ebola symptoms are so common in the early stages (they’re pretty much exactly like flu symptoms), that officials would end up needing to isolate much of the country this flu season, only to discover that it’s not Ebola.

The only people who need to be isolated are those who are showing Ebola-like symptoms and who have been exposed to outbreak areas or confirmed Ebola patients.

The United States isn’t ready for Ebola

West Africa wasn’t ready for Ebola, but the United States is. The U.S. healthcare leaders have learned from and evolved through this country’s past experiences with health emergencies, such as pandemic flu and SARS. The government and healthcare leaders have built a sophisticated and thorough infrastructure of policies, protocols, and facilities over time.

And now, with this Ebola outbreak, healthcare professionals have taken the opportunity to prepare hospitals with the right space, equipment, and additional training specific to Ebola, should they need it.

Additionally, the United States has a good system in place for contact tracing, which enables healthcare providers to quickly identify and monitor possible Ebola patients before they become symptomatic. So at the end of the day, this country is indeed ready — probably more than needed.

Ebola is the world’s biggest public health threat

Although Ebola currently is one of the biggest public health threats in West Africa, overall it’s not the biggest public health threat for the world. Ebola is considered a fairly rare disease, and outbreaks aren’t often seen — and certainly not to this extent.

U.S. leaders can’t make the mistake of paying so much attention to Ebola — the unlikely killer in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe that it is — that they ease up on prevention, education, and monitoring of more likely threats.

You need a special substance to kill the Ebola virus

Amazingly enough, Ebola is just like any other virus: You can kill it by washing your hands with soap and water. Hand hygiene is a key piece to prevention and treatment in the outbreak areas. An alcohol-based hand sanitizer can also work (as long as the hands aren’t actually visibly soiled). Just like your mother taught you: Wash your hands with soap and water regularly to stay healthy.

For disinfecting Ebola isolation areas, bleach-based environmental cleaning supplies are often used, and all hospital-grade disinfectants are effective.

Bringing Ebola patients to the United States puts you at risk

Having Ebola patients brought to the United States for treatment doesn’t put you or other Americans at risk for an outbreak. The difficulty of contracting the virus, combined with the infrastructure, makes the risks extremely low.

In fact, some argue that the United States should bring more patients here for treatment, where the healthcare system has the capacity, equipment, and staff to successfully care for them.

Ebola liquefies your organs, which causes the bleeding

This myth is a perfect example of slight truths being twisted and re-invented. Ebola doesn’t liquefy your organs. In a minority of cases, hemorrhaging from the eyes, mouth, ears, and nose does happen, but it’s because Ebola weakens the blood vessels and prevents the blood from clotting. What usually ultimately causes death is multi-organ failure and shock.

The current outbreak is unusually strong and deadly

This strain of Ebola has been around since its discovery in 1976. It hasn’t changed or mutated; the reason this outbreak is so much worse than all the other ones throughout history comes down to several reasons:

  • West Africa has never had an outbreak of this magnitude, so health officials weren’t on the lookout for it and didn’t recognize the danger as fast as they could have.

  • It started in an area that has particularly porous borders. That is, people move back and forth freely and often over the borders in that region for work, farming, markets, and so forth. That meant the virus was already in three countries before anyone realized it.

  • As compared to many of the previous outbreaks that happened in remote villages, this one reached urban centers early, and the density helped the virus spread very fast.

  • West African death rituals involve a lot of touching and washing of bodies, so many people regularly came (and still come) into contact with infected body fluids without realizing it.

  • Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia are three of the poorest countries in the world. They don’t have the infrastructure or medical care to address Ebola. These three countries have a patient-doctor ratio of around 100,000 to 1.