Opinion: Ebola is not that contagious

POSTED: 08/13/14 11:17 PM

Molecular biologist turned science communicator Eva Teuling writes in an op-ed in the Volkskrant why “we” do not have to fear ebola, the disease that has taken already more than a thousand lives in West Africa. Writing from a Dutch perspective her “we” probably does not include the islands in the Caribbean that are a part of the Dutch Kingdom, but her observations are well worth taking note off. Opposite the fact that ebola is a creepy and often-deadly disease, stands the fact that ebola is not at all that contagious, Teuling notes. This is her op-ed:

“Since the first outbreak in Guinea the ebola-virus is spreading further and further in West-Africa. With more than a thousand deaths, this is the most deadly outbreak of the virus ever. Liberia declared the state of emergency to prevent that the situation gets further out of control. Several western countries, like England and the United States, are concerned about the arrival of (potential) ebola patients to their country and the risk this poses for their populations. Is this fear exaggerated, or should the Netherlands also do well to take preventive measures?

The ebola virus is a nasty thing. When a patient is infected with it, he or she will soon experience flu-like symptoms like fever, throat pain, headache and muscle ache, followed by nausea, diarrhea and vomiting. Later these symptoms change to internal bleedings and kidney failure. In 50 to 90 percent of the cases, the infection results in death. The mortality rate is much higher than for instance that for the influenza virus that causes the flu. The initial symptoms are similar but the flu causes death in only 0.2 percent of the cases.

Ebola is not that contagious at all. The influenza virus is able to spread through aerosols in the air and therefore via sneezing colleagues, door handles, the day-care center of your children and other ways that are tough to avoid in everyday life. Furthermore, a patient with the flu is contagious from a day before the symptoms begin, until a few days afterwards.

The ebola virus only spreads through contact with body fluids of infected people, like vomit, urine, feces and blood, something by far most people do not get in contact with on a daily basis. Only hospital staff, caretakers and close family members of ebola patients therefore run a significant risk at infection. The ebola virus is only transferable after the first symptoms have surfaced and by then most ebola patients are already too sick to be in touch with others. Therefore the chance that the virus will spread far outside the countries where it occurs now is not very significant.

Furthermore, in West Africa healthcare is not on the level we have here (in western countries – ed.). A patient who is possibly infected with ebola will be quarantined immediately in Europe or the United States, and doctors and nurses will approach patients with the utmost prudence. In Africa on the other hand, many patients are kept at home, firstly because the symptoms are not always recognized immediately, but also out of fear for doctors and hospitals (that bring death and ruin according to traditional religions). Many healthcare workers are not adequately aware of the preventive measures that are required to stop the spread of the virus.

Last week an American physician who assisted with the treatment of patients in Liberia was flown back home to Atlanta. Fearful America was completely upside down – people were scared to death that the virus would reach the United States and make many victims there. But that fear is really unfounded.

The man was transported in a shielded plane, he was admitted into a room specially built for contagious and dangerous viruses, and the physicians and nurses know damn well what they are doing. The man will get medication, hooked up to a respirator and possibly undergo transfusions – all treatments that are not available in primitive African hospitals. His survival chances are many times higher than when he had stayed in Liberia.

In the United States, the virus will therefore remain limited to a couple of healthcare workers that caught it while they were in West Africa. The population really does not have to fear ebola, no matter what some troublemakers state on the internet.

The local population in West Africa on the other hand, runs a significant risk at infection. When they catch the infection, chances are that they will die too. This is often due to a (too) late diagnosis, primitive hospitals, a lack of good medication and quarantine-spaces, and the fear for western healthcare.

It remains therefore important for healthcare professionals from Europe and the United States to offer assistance in countries where the ebola virus is spreading now and to supplement the shortage of good healthcare as much as possible. Only then will it be possible to stop the epidemic in Africa.”


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