Dear Dr. Garner,
This Ebola virus outbreak has me really worried, even though I have heard that it’s impossible to get it over here. Still, strange things seem to be happening. Doctors who supposedly had no exposure have come down with the virus, which doesn’t seem to be following all of the rules.
I can’t understand why we are still allowing people to travel by plane from West Africa to our country. It is my understanding that there is no cure for this.
Can you please tell me what you think about this situation and if we should be stopping air travel to prevent people who might very well have Ebola from coming into our country?
Ebola Anxiety in Astoria
Dear Ebola Anxiety,
From the many questions I have been asked, you are not alone in your anxiety. Many people are concerned about the risk from Ebola virus. Many have also expressed surprise that we are allowing patients who might have the virus to come into our country by commercial airlines.
There is no specific vaccine or treatment available for Ebola. The treatments consist of supportive care, which means giving fluid when necessary, and treating symptoms, such as high fever with Tylenol, when they occur. Isolation is an important part of the process.
Spreads Via Direct Contact
The Ebola virus spreads through human-to-human transmission and only via direct contact. Direct contact means contact with blood, secretions or organs from one person through the broken skin of another. Surfaces, such as bedding, clothing and countertops, may be infected with the virus. The virus may live for several hours on various surfaces.
The basic point, however, is that the virus spreads only through close contact, not casual contact. This means that someone sitting on a plane would have a very low chance of contracting the disease as it is not airborne. People can only transmit the disease when they are symptomatic. Symptoms include high fever, diarrhea, rash and other flu-like complaints. If the person you are sitting next to on a plane has no sign of illness, then this person most likely will not be able to transmit Ebola.
Our country has the best medical system in the world, and our mechanism for identifying these cases and providing isolation has been well developed. This is why recovery among patients who live in the U.S. versus those who live in small villages in West Africa is so much better.
Newspapers and television can play an important role in educating patients about how Ebola is contracted and how it can be controlled. Those most at risk are health care workers. It is important to identify patients within the health care system who have potential infection with Ebola virus.
If you have to travel to an area that has Ebola, you can protect yourself by:
– Washing your hands frequently,
– Avoiding contact with blood and other bodily fluids of someone that is sick, and
– Not handling items that have come in contact with an infected person.
Hospitals in the U.S. are well equipped to deal with patients with Ebola. They can provide the proper isolation to protect others and to prevent the disease from spreading.
The average incubation period is about 21 days, which means that if you are exposed to a patient with Ebola virus, you may develop symptoms up to 21 days after exposure.
As I noted previously, Ebola is not spread through casual contact. Therefore, the risk of an outbreak in the U.S. is very low. The way to stop Ebola spread is through identifying infected patients, isolating ill patients and isolating contacts, who may not yet have manifested symptoms but have been in contact with patients who have Ebola.
If any readers have come in contact with a patient who had Ebola or have returned from West Africa, it is vital to speak to a health care professional.
Remember that the virus that causes Ebola can only be spread through direct contact with bodily fluid, such as blood, sweat, vomit, feces, urine, saliva or semen. The person who is infected must show symptoms to be able to transmit the disease to others.
It is understandable that people are feeling frightened of this disease, which has such a high rate of mortality – anywhere up to 90 percent. But when you look at the facts, the likelihood of contracting Ebola virus is less than getting hit by lightning.
Ebola does not spread easily, like the flu, cold and measles, and the fact that it is not airborne means that you need direct contact to contract this disease.
In West Africa, there is a shortage of medical personnel, supplies, extreme poverty and an unstable political system. There are also certain customs, such as burial ceremonies, in which there is direct contact with the body of a deceased person. This has contributed to the record outbreak experienced in West Africa.
This is not the same situation we have in our country, where excellent medical care and isolation techniques are meticulously practiced.
I hope this information alleviates some of your concerns and fears about this scary virus.
Dr. Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on NET TV, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Time Warner Channel 97, Cablevision Channel 30 and Verizon FiOS on Demand.