Worry about Ebola is spreading faster than the infectious disease itself. Yesterday, CDC director Dr. Thomas Frieden answered to Congress as to why travel bans to and from Africa haven't been put in place yet and how concerned the public should be. It's hard to know what to think of the disease — or how concerned we should be compared to others — and there's still a lot medical professionals don't know. Amid the frenzy, here are five facts to keep in mind as the government continues to fight the disease.
1. This isn't the first time Ebola has landed on U.S. soil.
In fact, the CDC has been fighting Ebola for decades. It was first recognized in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1976, with outbreaks in Uganda, Guinea, and Liberia since then. At a previous Congressional seminar, Frieden said the CDC has been able to control all outbreaks in Africa until the present one, which is the worst the continent has seen yet.
Ebola has also made an appearance on U.S. soil before — in monkeys. "This is not something new," says Dr. Vincent Lo Re, Assistant Professor of Medicine and Epidemiology at the University of Pennsylvania. Americans may have heard of Ebola decades ago when one strain of the virus appeared in Reston, Virginia in 1989. "The virus was maintained from an animal reservoir and caused an infection in U.S. macaques," Lo Re explains. "A book by Richard Preston called The Hot Zone brought wide attention to that Ebola outbreak."
2. It's hard to catch without very close contact.
Blood, feces, and vomit — these are the fluids you catch Ebola from, if they enter your eyes, nose, mouth or broken skin. Other infectious fluids include urine, semen, breast milk, saliva, and tears. "Contact with any of these [infectious fluids] can pose a potential risk," says Lo Re. "Even on an airplane." If a person with the symptoms of Ebola coughs or sneezes, that saliva could harbor the virus. That's why the CDC is looking to identify all of the people on the flight of the latest Ebola patient, Amber Vinson. But the question of whether you can get the disease from sitting next to someone with Ebola will depend entirely on how closely you interacted with that person and whether that person was symptomatic — infected people can only transmit the virus when they've shown the symptoms of diarrhea, fever and vomiting. Ebola has a 21-day incubation period, which means the virus can take up to 21 days before showing any symptoms after you've been exposed. Healthcare workers like Vinson and Nina Pham — the only cases that have developed in the U.S. so far — were at a higher risk than the public since they work on the front lines of handling patients.
3. The symptoms are similar to the flu.
Ebola symptoms look just like the flu — a fever of 101.5 F or more, vomiting, body aches, coughs, stomach pain, headaches, and diarrhea. And as flu season comes closer, the hysteria about whether or not someone has the virus could heighten, says Lo Re. But he says what he and other members at the Penn Presbyterian Medical Center will ultimately scan for is whether a person reporting symptoms has been to the three Ebola outbreak countries: Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, with some reported cases in Nigeria.
"The only other thing you'd be concerned about is if you've ben in contact with somebody who was exposed," adds Lo Re. "From our standpoint, the protocol that the CDC and other health departments have is the question about travel from West Africa. So I would reassure the general public that if you develop a fever or some other flu-like symptoms you're far more likely to have a viral illness like influenza, or other respiratory viruses rather than Ebola."
4. You can recover from Ebola.
Thomas Duncan is the only person who has ever died from Ebola in the U.S. There are also two reported cases in American nurses who cared for Duncan and eight confirmed cases overall in Europe. About 4,400 people have died from Ebola in Africa this year. According to the World Health Organization, scientists still don't know why some patients recover and others don't. "The death rate has historically been 60 to 90 percent," says Lo Re. "But I think in the context of the United States, with the full support of critical care, nursing, other health care providers, and particularly the replenishment of nutrition and intravenous fluids, the death rate may be much less than what's observed in Africa." Lo Re adds that it's hard to make a broad generalization of the U.S. death rate with such a small number of cases. And he says there have been recoveries in Africa as well as in two American missionaries — including Dr. Kent Brantley, who was working in Liberia. The aid workers returned from West Africa and were treated at Emory. Brantley has since given blood to infected nurse Nina Pham, in hopes of a recovery.
5. The risk of catching the disease in the U.S. is extremely low.
"The overall likelihood at this time of acquiring Ebola is very low," Lo Re says. "I think that if you have questions, it's important to call your primary care physician to help resolve any of those doubts." Lo Re recommends that you still take precaution and apply the same rules that you would for avoiding any sort of sickness, like maintaining good overall cleanliness, washing your hands, and avoiding contact with the bodily fluids of a sick person.