Putting the Ebola outbreak in context

Americans more likey to catch the flu

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The world, and by the world we mean cable TV, is consumed by the news of an Ebola epidemic.

To be sure, it’s serious. Ebola has grown out of control in the West African countries of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The latest outbreak started in March and, like previous Ebola outbreaks, has migrated from rural areas to cities and across borders.

So far, there have been more than 1,700 infected patients and at least 932 have died. Two U.S. missionaries are being treated at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta, Ga.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned Americans not to travel to the countries hit by the outbreak. The last time the CDC issued such a high-level warning was in 2003 during the SARS outbreak in Asia.

U.S. Border Patrol agents and several dozen CDC disease specialists are monitoring passengers arriving on international flights from the affected region for signs of Ebola, and major medical centers around the country are on alert to isolate and care for any patient who might be infected, although CDC testing hasn’t found any.

The high rate of international travel these days means it's possible for a single case of an infectious disease to pop up anywhere. But that doesn't necessarily mean there will be a giant outbreak wherever it does – even if there is a giant outbreak of cable news coverage.

One thing you don’t hear often in the non-stop coverage is that while public health experts don’t take the risk lightly, they do stress that getting infected with Ebola at all, and particularly in the U.S., is far less likely than picking up many other dangerous infections.

So, just for the record, we decided to look into how Ebola compares with a witches’ brew of other infectious diseases in terms of transmission.

First, here’s a recap of how Ebola is transmitted. The virus is shed in body fluids such as blood, feces, urine, semen and sweat, and you have to be in close contact – eyes, mouth or open wounds to be infected. It’s not considered an airborne or respiratory disease, but CDC officials noted this week that someone exposed to droplets from a cough or sneeze by an infected person could possibly inhale or ingest the virus.

It can take up to 21 days for symptoms like fever, muscle pain, vomiting and diarrhea to develop, and the patient can be infectious for several more weeks. But the virus is fairly easy to kill with soap and water, alcohol or bleach.

Now for the witches’ brew:

SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome): Between late 2002 and July 2003, the disease made more than 8,200 people sick and killed 775 in 37 countries. The spread was facilitated by air travel, although screening, including thermal imaging, kept some patients from boarding.

It takes between two and seven days to develop symptoms after contracting the infection, and while largely shared via droplets at close quarters, SARS can also be transmitted by patients’ hands. Widespread quarantine and isolation of patients by hospitals in key cities eventually slowed the spread and there have been no reported human cases since 2004.        

Flu: Influenza may be the ultimate air warrior. Recent research suggests the infection range on airplanes is limited to about two rows in any direction from the infected person. But in one landmark case from Alaska, a single flu patient infected 72 percent of fellow passengers in a plane tarmacked for three hours without the ventilation system running. Results in other crowded public spaces, offices or schools may vary. The virus may linger a day or two on some surfaces, but for shorter times in the air, particularly damp air.

Adults with the flu begin to share the virus a day before symptoms appear and then for another five to seven days. Kids are more infectious than adults and contagious for up to two weeks. Generally, the higher someone’s fever is, the more virus they’re shedding.

Seasonal flu sends more than 200,000 Americans to the hospital and is estimated to kill between 3,000 and 49,000 a year, depending on the severity of the viruses circulating. Public health officials are constantly on the lookout for new flu strains that people have little resistance to or that prove far more deadly.

TB: Tuberculosis bacteria spread through the air from person to person when someone with an active infection coughs, sneezes, speaks or sings. People can be infected without becoming sick, but latent infections can become active at any time. The disease cannot be spread by physical contact, through household surfaces or even kissing.   

Measles: Ideally, everyone is properly vaccinated for measles. But for anyone who isn’t, the virus is almost instant trouble and so contagious that 90 percent of those who are not immune will become infected if exposed. There have been at least 18 measles outbreaks in the U.S so far this year, with more than 800 people infected.The virus lives in the nose and throat and spreads by coughing or sneezing. It can live on surfaces in a room, bus or plane for up to 2 hours.

What’s all this mean?

Well, despite Donald Trump’s Twitter twitching, it seems that while our risk from Ebola isn’t quite zero, it’s much easier to catch a lot of other infectious diseases that are more common. And that means washing our hands, getting our shots, covering our coughs and keeping things clean out there in an everyday world full of diseases that aren’t breaking news.

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