The Facts About Ebola

Oct 3, 2014 Issues: Foreign Affairs, Health Care

For decades now, Hollywood has been producing thrillers about the rapid spread of disease. Many are pure fiction, with the disease resulting in brain-craving zombies. Others have the air of reality, like 1995’s blockbuster “Outbreak.”

We can’t help but recall images from movies when we think of the very real Ebola outbreak. But right now, the most important thing is to get the facts about what Ebola really is, what is going on in Africa and what is being done here in the U.S. to prevent spread of the disease.

First, Ebola is a virus that can infect humans and primates such as monkeys and chimpanzees. It was first discovered in 1976 and there have been sporadic outbreaks in Africa over the following decades.

The disease is not spread like the flu or the common cold. It cannot spread through the air, only through contact with bodily fluids of someone with symptoms. While early symptoms can appear similar to other fevers, extreme bleeding, diarrhea and vomiting develop over the coming days. Up to two out of three people who contract Ebola may lose their life to the disease.

The current outbreak started in Guinea in the spring of this year. It spread to the neighboring countries of Sierra Leone and Liberia. It has moved from smaller villages to larger cities, including the capital of Liberia, Monrovia.

While the World Health Organization has recorded over 3,000 deaths, they also say that this figure may be unreliable since none of the three nations have a modern public health system. That fact has been a critical factor in the spread of Ebola.

Medicine in West Africa looks almost nothing like what it does here. Where there are medical facilities, they are often open to the air. There may only be one doctor available to treat patients and nurses typically have only basic training.

In Africa, myths about the spread of Ebola abound. Many falsely believe that the disease is actually being spread by people trying to disinfect areas with chlorine. Personnel in protective equipment are often feared more than actual carriers of the disease.

By contrast with Africa, the United States has a sophisticated health system to prevent the spread of any disease. The Centers for Disease Control, based in Atlanta, is the premier organization in the world for studying and preventing communicable diseases.

In mid-September, I received a briefing from CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden while he was in Washington. Dr. Frieden had just returned from Africa, where he witnessed firsthand the situation. I then again spoke with Dr. Frieden after the announcement that a man in Dallas had been diagnosed with Ebola. I am confident that right now CDC is doing its best job and that they have adequate resources.

The CDC has been preparing for the possibility that someone would enter the country with the disease. Hospitals have received instructions about how to isolate, test and treat patients. More than 100 CDC staff are in the affected countries and hundreds more are doing work here in the U.S.

Ebola can only be spread by people who are showing symptoms. Currently, anyone getting on a plane in the affected countries is being tested for fever. However, given that the Dallas patient didn’t come down with a fever until arriving in the U.S., there may need to be more restrictions on travel. In fact, British Airways chose to suspend flights without a government order.

Africa is where Ebola started and it is where is must be stopped. It is important to know exactly why President Obama sent U.S. military personnel to the affected countries.

Service members are not treating patients. They are filling a much needed logistical role in coordinating the response. They are making sure that airports are functioning, ferrying in supplies. They are setting up tent hospitals so that more patients can be isolated and treated. They are also training additional nurses in how to combat Ebola.

This is low-risk work that could yield great rewards. The more people in Africa who contract Ebola, the greater the risk to the rest of the world. Sitting by idly is a recipe for disaster.

I will not say that there is absolutely nothing to fear. Ebola is a serious and deadly disease. What is needed is a healthy fear, based in real knowledge of the disease. Knowledge is the first weapon in preventing the spread of disease.

For more information visit www.cdc.gov.