I’m reading a number of comments and articles saying that you don’t need to worry about Ebola in the U.S. Here’s one particularly obnoxious commentary, in the form of a flow chart. But it’s more than just random online posts. The CDC is telling us not to worry. — “Ebola poses little risk to the U.S. general population.”
Really? This is the worst outbreak of one of the worst diseases known to humanity. It’s spread to several nations. An Ebola patient is currently in the U.S. Even healthcare workers who take precautions are getting infected. The fatality rate is near 90%. Yes, there are real reasons to worry. Take a look at this sane article, arguing that we should be worried. There is no vaccine, no effective treatment, and no cure.
But now I’m going to add two more facts to the equation, facts that change the landscape of possibility for this disease.
1. Ebola could become airborne
Most of the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” opinions are based on the limited means of transmission of the disease. Transmission requires direct physical contact with bodily fluids. They forget to mention that persons with Ebola bleed out of every orifice, and all of that blood is heavily contaminated. They don’t seem to notice that even physicians who are experts in Ebola — who therefore take every precaution — are still getting sick.
Another reason we are told not to worry is that a person with Ebola does not become infectious until after symptoms appear. But I’m skeptical of that assertion. Certainly, an infected person is more contagious once he or she starts bleeding from every orifice. But Ebola infects the blood; it’s in the bloodstream, spreading to every organ system prior to the appearance of obvious symptoms. So it seems likely to me that Ebola can be transmitted prior to symptoms.
And the first symptoms are not unique to Ebola: “fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat”. [WHO] So doctor and patient cannot conclude, from the outset of symptoms, that he or she has Ebola. Precautions to prevent transmission would usually not be taken for such a vague and common set of initial symptoms.
But the real game-changer would be if Ebola ever became airborne. An airborne strain of Ebola would negate the above considerations. Ebola is in the blood, and so it is in the lungs which are thoroughly infused with blood. If Ebola becomes airborne, it would be easily transmissible without direct contact, and probably before symptoms became severe enough to diagnosis the disease and take precautions.
The book “The Hot Zone” is very scary. It’s about an airborne strain of Ebola in the United States. OK. That would be scary. But, you say, that could never happen. On to my second point:
2. The Hot Zone is not a novel.
It did happen. An airborne strain of Ebola developed in primates in a lab in the United States. The strain spread by air to the “control” animals, which were supposed to be kept free from infection. And a sample of the airborne strain nearly got loose in the U.S. population. That’s what makes The Hot Zone scarier than a Stephen King horror novel.
And it could happen, in the U.S. or elsewhere. It is entirely possible that Ebola could develop into an airborne strain. Viruses are constantly mutating. And airborne infection is not at all unusual among viruses.
So, should you worry about Ebola? Absolutely.