The facts behind Ebola fears

By Zachary Vasile

A colorized image of a Zaire ebolavirus virion (virus particle). This species of Ebola was responsible for the 1976 Yambuku outbreak in the Republic of Zaire and is the cause of the ongoing epidemic in West Africa. Source: Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
A colorized image of a Zaire ebolavirus virus particle. This species of Ebola was responsible for the 1976 Yambuku outbreak in the Republic of Zaire and is the cause of the ongoing epidemic in West Africa. Source: Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Quarantine units set up at the University of Chicago Medical Center and Rush University Medical Center monitored the first two potential Ebola patients in Chicago and their illnesses turned out to be false alarms, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. But horrific scenes from virus-ravaged Liberia continue to generate a national wave of paranoia, spawning a litany of myths regarding the disease’s transmission, effects, impact, and treatment. Here is the reality check for myths and half-truths that are taking the greatest toll and hindering international efforts to contain the problem.

Ebola spreads through casual contact, just like the cold or the flu. – False

Many in the West cling to the idea that Ebola is transmitted like the common cold and that it is extremely contagious. “We don’t think that’s really the case,” says Dr. Babafemi Taiwo, a specialist in the field of infectious diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. “Ebola seems to spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of infected people.” In other words, it is very unlikely that any given person will contract Ebola simply by being in the same room or using the same facilities as an infected person.

Ebola could go airborne. – Possible but very unlikely

Science rarely says never. Any virus could mutate, yet the chances of Ebola making such a giant evolutionary leap are slim. Ebola as an organism does not seem particularly inclined towards dramatic mutation – it has changed little since it first emerged in East Africa in the 1970s.

Ebola has devastated Liberia and Sierra Leone. There is no reason it couldn’t do the same thing here. – False

One of the reasons why the Ebola virus has spread so quickly in West Africa is because of poor sanitation and a lack of necessary healthcare infrastructure in those countries. Contaminated water, cramped living conditions, and improper disposal of the dead and infected items caused the virus to take hold. Limited medical and financial resources in these largely impoverished nations limits prevention and treatment so the toll keeps growing larger. The much higher sanitation standards and medical resources in the United States will likely prevent a West Africa-style epidemic.

People infected with Ebola are contagious even if they aren’t showing symptoms. – Mostly false

Unlike some of the more outrageous myths, this one has some basis in scientific fact. While transmission of Ebola generally takes place when an obviously symptomatic individual spreads the disease to a non-infected person, there is some troubling evidence to suggest that the virus remains present and potent in people who are apparently cured. According to the World Health Organization, men who have made a successful recovery from Ebola can still transmit the disease through sexual contact up to two months after symptoms dissipate. Fortunately, there is no evidence to suggest that infected persons can spread the illness before symptoms begin.

The quarantine of health workers returning from affected countries is the best way to contain the Ebola virus in the U.S. – False

Despite the firestorm currently surrounding the isolation of healthcare workers in New Jersey – and perhaps because of it – the CDC does not recommend automatic quarantine for volunteers returning from West Africa. In most cases, an automatic quarantine would waste valuable resources that would be better spent on those diagnosed with the virus. “There is a health watch, but no quarantine,” says Melaney Arnold, a public information officer of the Illinois Department of Public Health. “Most health workers simply do not fall into the high-risk category,” she explained.

Ebola containment workers in Liberia disinfect. Source: Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Ebola containment workers in Liberia disinfect. Source: Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Ebola is a death sentence. – False

The World Health Organization has reported that the death rate for the current West African outbreak is approximately 70 percent. The United States and other developed nations with vast healthcare systems and widespread awareness of the virus would see much lower death rates even if a true outbreak occurred.

Internal and external bleeding are the main symptoms of Ebola. – False

Widely circulated images of infected people in West Africa – bedridden and bleeding into the whites of their eyes – have contributed to the idea that severe hemorrhaging occurs in all Ebola patients across the board. The reality is that bleeding takes place in under 50 percent of infected persons, according to Taiwo. Ebola causes bleeding by attacking and degrading endothelial cells, which coat the insides of blood vessels, according to a heavily-cited 2003 Journal of Virology paper authored by Nancy Sullivan, Zhi-Yong Yang, and Gary J. Nabel. When the damaged vessels tear or give way, hemorrhage occurs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the main symptoms of the Ebola virus are flu-like symptoms that progress into shortness of breath, chest pain, vomiting, and diarrhea. One of the reasons why bleeding from mucous membranes is so closely associated with the virus is that bleeding itself represents a worse prognosis.

There is a cure for Ebola. The CDC and the American government did not prioritize Thomas Eric Duncan because he was Liberian, not American, and did not make certain treatments available to him. – False

Of all the rumors and myths, this is one of the most pernicious. The fact is that there is no cure for Ebola. There are treatments and drugs which have been administered to Ebola patients in the United States, but much of the process is guesswork involving very exotic and rare drugs. Kent Brantly, an American healthcare worker who contracted Ebola in West Africa and ultimately survived, was given ZMapp, an experimental drug now being developed by Leaf Biopharmaceutical, Inc. in San Diego. ZMapp – along with other drugs and constant care from American physicians – helped Brantly overcome the virus, but it alone did not cure him. By the time Duncan was hospitalized, the supply of ZMapp was exhausted. Unfortunately, the process of making more is laborious and takes time; the American public is expecting the wheels of biomedical science to go into overdrive, and they will, but larger-scale production of a hitherto obscure drug cocktail will require months of constant work and development.

Even if you currently have a fever, your chances of having Ebola are infinitesimally small. – True