Everywhere we see news about the Ebola situation: on Friday, August 8th, the World Health Organization declared a global public health emergency. Now, before you panic, there are 6 things you need to understand about the disease, this situation, and how to best protect yourself.
1. Ebola is only contagious once symptoms have set in
A person is only able to spread Ebola to another once they themselves have started showing symptoms (fever, joint and muscle pains, weakness, stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea), which relatively quickly develop into internal bleeding. If you are dealing with healthy, happy people: none of them can give you Ebola.
2. Ebola can only be transmitted through bodily secretions: it is not airborne
Despite the frequently misinterpreted results of a recent study published in Nature: Ebola is not airborne. The study found that pigs were able to give monkeys Ebola despite no physical contact (known as droplet transmission), but as the study itself says: pigs are exceptionally more effective at transmitting aerosol droplets than other species. The same study failed to show airborne virus transmission between monkeys, only finding that pigs could infect monkeys through aerosols. Unlike the flu (influenza A), which has a viral shell (capsid) that looks a lot like pollen: maximizing airborne infection and transmission, Ebola is shaped a lot like a snake (which, as we all know, cannot really fly). This does not mean airborne transmission between people is impossible, just that it is very unlikely and attempts to show this mechanism in laboratory trials have failed.
To reduce any possibility of contact with the disease, it is thus advisable to avoid contact with the sweat, blood, or other secretions of people who may have come in contact with the disease. Airline travel is not particularly dangerous, which is why the World Health Organization has not advised airlines to stop flying to affected nations.
3. Ebola does not kill 90% of the infected
Although this figure is often quoted, it is actually a maximum instead of an average. The average infection-to-death ratio of Ebola is actually roughly 60%. Keep in mind that it has thus far broken out in nations with lower health and hygiene standards (and within which many individuals take the dead home to prepare them for burial), and that these circumstances increase both the number of fatalities, as well as the rate of infection.
The best way to protect yourself from this illness is to maintain a good baseline: keep your immune system and your body healthy. You can do this as simply as by eating well, sleeping sufficiently, remaining hydrated, and not stressing your body too much.
4. Ebola did not come from a lab
Ebola is a member of the filoviridae family of viruses, of which the Marburg virus and Cuevavirus are also members. Humans are not their primary hosts, which is evident in their high lethality: a virus exists to reproduce and not to kill its host. The filoviridae (or thread like viruses) likely originate in bats, which do not display the intense symptoms we associate with the diseases.
The Marbug virus was first found in the 1960s, and was in fact weaponized by the Soviet Union. Near the end of the Cold War, a Soviet researcher was accidentally infected, and although at least one person died, the disease failed to cause any epidemic. Other infections from laboratories also occurred (a few in Europe), and none of these resulted in massive infections or mass panic. Even after weaponization for over 10 years, someone’s accidental infection did not lead to mass deaths.
If the government or any rogue organization was trying to create a bio-weapon to wipe out humanity, you can almost bet on them using a variant of influenza A with a modified lytic/lysogenic cycle to maximize virus transmission (perhaps modifying regulatory elements from herpes), so as to infect without necessarily killing or exposing the host during the infectious period and instead maximize fatality by attacking (activating the lytic cycle) during weakened states. If you think there are people smart and determined enough to create a virus to thin the population, they would most likely not opt for modifying filoviridae.
5. Ebola is very dangerous for primates
Avoiding infection, and being informed about current risk areas, is smart even when dealing with viruses half as deadly as Ebola. Humans have had especially little evolutionary contact with members of the filoviridae family, and thus are not well suited to dealing with the disease. Although your odds of contact with the disease are very low unless you are a doctor or aid worker, you should also be aware that your odds of dying (if you get infected) from it are under 50%, if you are taking care of your body by sleeping enough, remaining hydrated, eating well, and avoiding excess stress.
6. A global Ebola pandemic is very unlikely
Again, Ebola is not airborne. Its own transmissability and further evolution is hindered by both its lethality and quick onset of symptoms. Because the disease is only communicable when the symptoms are present, it is not that difficult to avoid contact with the secretions of the infected. Even though the mutation of rate of the current strain is much higher than expected: it is not capable of changing in ways to make it truly airborne.
There is absolutely nothing to panic about, especially if you live in the first world. Developed nations have the medical infrastructure to prevent a real pandemic. The Marburg virus (Ebola’s “sister”) broke out in Marburg, Frankfurt, and Belgrade in the 1960s after researchers were accidentally exposed to infected grivet (a kind of primate) tissue, resulting in several deaths but no major outbreaks. None of the many Ebola outbreaks have ever resulted in even close to a global pandemic. As mentioned earlier in the text, Soviet efforts to weaponize it led to at least one case of accidental infection, which also failed to cause any pandemic.
This current epidemic is being fueled by insufficient information available in affected regions and contact with the dead post-mortem. No matter where you are: if you are well-informed and reasonably cautious, you can almost certainly avoid infection or death. Just like every outbreak of filoviridae: this too shall pass without any global pandemic.