Ebola Is Probably Not Going to Kill You

By Justin Wier

Ebola hazmat suit on sale as Halloween costume
Costume stores are selling out of Hazmat suits as customers have Ebola on their minds this Halloween in Arlington, Va., on Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. Photo by Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/MCT.

Just over a week ago, panic swept through northeastern Ohio when media outlets reported a woman had flown out of Cleveland while infected with Ebola.

The media’s treatment of the disease has been rather sensational. The New York Post recently ran a story reporting that someone who had recently traveled to Sudan was in isolation at a Brooklyn hospital. Sudan, however, is about as close to the affected region in West Africa as Brazil or France.

Heather Lorimer, an associate professor of biology at Youngstown State University, said students at YSU should not be worried about Ebola.

“[Ebola] is not a terribly contagious disease,” Lorimer said.

It breaks down like this: the average incubation period for Ebola is eight days. If everyone who was infected with Ebola infected just one other person, you would expect to see the number of cases in West Africa double every eight days. Cases are doubling every 30 to 31 days. This means that not every person with Ebola is transmitting the infection to others.

This is in spite of the fact that Liberia has a poor public health system — especially when compared to first world countries like the United States and Britain.

“A lot of people are caring for people who are affected at home because they can’t get their loved ones into treatment,” Lorimer said. “There is a tremendous lack of education, and lack of understanding, and lack of facilities.”

The United States has 245.2 doctors for every 100,000 citizens according to the WHO. By contrast, Liberia has 1.4 and Sierra Leone has 2.2. By any measure, the U.S. is better equipped to contain the disease than countries in West Africa.

Lorimer pointed out that Nigeria has already managed to contain the disease.

“They went through, and they contacted everybody. They traced down all of his contacts, and all the secondary contacts, and they quarantined all those people, and they did a big public education campaign, and they got rid of it,” she said. “It’s gone.”

This system is called contract tracing, and the Center for Disease Control has implemented it in the U.S.

Amber Vinson, the woman who flew out of Cleveland with a mild fever, was in the early stages of the disease when she left Ohio. In response, many universities — including YSU and Kent University — and news outlets picked up on the story and began theorizing or planning for a potential outbreak of the disease in Ohio

“She probably was contagious. How contagious was she? Not very,” Lorimer said. “This is a virus that gets more and more contagious the sicker you get. By the time you are throwing up bloody vomit and having bloody diarrhea, you’re very contagious. When you have a fever, you’re not very contagious.”

To use an example, Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., was staying with his fiancee and her children in Texas. He developed a fever and went to the hospital. The hospital sent him back home and he later returned to the hospital and was determined to have Ebola.

Despite this, his fiancee and her children did not contract the disease. The two people Duncan infected were nurses — including Vinson — who were working directly with his blood and bodily fluids at the height of his infection.
Lorimer said the hospital did not prepare adequately, and this is evident when you compare their results to other American hospitals that have treated Ebola patients.

“There’s been no transmission with the other Ebola cases that have come to the U.S.,” she said.

Five Americans who contracted the disease in West Africa have returned to the U.S. and been treated without infecting others.

Many have been calling for the U.S. government to impose travel bans on people coming from West African countries, but they could be counterproductive.

“Say you come in from Liberia, and you shouldn’t have because there was a ban. And then you get a fever,” Lorimer said. “You may go, ‘Well, I’m not going to go to the hospital now because the last thing I want is for them to find out I broke a law,’ and in that case you’ve extended the time in which a potentially infected person would not go to the hospital.”

It would also prevent people from traveling to the affected countries to help with the containment effort, which is vital to keep the outbreak from becoming global.

Lorimer said it’s probable that the virus will eventually die out, but noted that it’s difficult to model because the current outbreak is more widespread than previous ones.

“Viruses that are that lethal do not survive long in the host in which they’re lethal because they kill their hosts,” she said. “The virus is going to burn out because it can’t sit around causing [infections without signs or symptoms], it doesn’t do that. The natural host is presumed to be bats where it seems it causes no disease. That’s how viruses like this work. They need to be some place where they do not kill their host because if they kill their host they can’t survive long.”