Facts about prevention, transmission and risk

Educating people with facts about Ebola is essential to beating the virus. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

Educating people with facts about Ebola is essential to beating the virus. (Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

As public health authorities deploy resources around the world to bring the Ebola epidemic to an end, conspiracy theorists, self-serving politicians and ill-informed celebrities are fanning public fears of the disease.

Things have gotten so bad that CNN is regularly updating a page tracking outrageous Ebola commentary. Among more egregious examples, Phil Gingrey, a Republican congressman from Georgia insists that migrant Latino children carry a risk of Ebola being carried into the country. Tom Frieden of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) immediately reported that not a single case of Ebola has been reported in any Latin American country.

Politico posted a roundup of crazy Ebola Internet rumors, including religious leaders who blame Ebola on selfishness and radio host Michael Savage who says Obama wants to infect U.S. soldiers. And, of course, at least one Internet site is promising an Ebola zombie apocalypse.

In the name of common sense and good health, here are the facts from the top medical experts in the world on Ebola transmission, infection, prevention and the source of the disease.

Q: How widespread is Ebola?

A: As of October 17, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports 9,216 cases of Ebola worldwide. Almost 99 percent of the cases are in Africa, a continent of more than 1 billion people. Roughly 4,555 people have died from the virus. The number of deaths in the United States: one. This WHO world map and chart show the number of cases and fatalities in each country.

Q: Has any country beat Ebola?

A: Yes. On October 14, WHO congratulated Senegal for using “diligence” to end the Ebola outbreak within its borders.

Q: How do you catch Ebola

A: Ebola can only be transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person who is showing symptoms, according to WHO and CDC.

Bodily fluids include blood, urine, feces, sweat (even a small amount), vomit, saliva and semen. Ebola may live in semen or for up to three months after a person survives the disease, so WHO recommends abstaining from intercourse for that period of time. The virus has also been detected in vaginal secretions.

Direct contact means contact with a person who has the Ebola virus or a person who has died from the Ebola virus. Once the virus is on your skin, it can enter your body through tiny cuts or fissures or mucus membranes, meaning your eyes, mouth, nose or genitals.

Q: Can Ebola travel through the air?

A: No. Ebola is not an airborne virus like the cold or flu. It lives in fluids and briefly on surfaces that have come in contact with the fluids of an infected person.

Q: How can you kill Ebola?

A: Ebola can be killed with hot water and soap, chlorine bleach or alcohol. Bleach may be best, but alcohol hand rubs (sanitizers) are effective. A quick hand washing, however, won’t do. Here’s the WHO’s visual, step-by-step guide to washing your hands to kill Ebola.

Bleach or alcohol can also kill Ebola on surfaces. Dried Ebola viruses can live on surfaces (door knobs, floors) for several hours.

Q: Why are airline flights a risk?

A: Because flying places people in close proximity to each other, making it easier for bodily fluids to be shared. If you are concerned about surfaces, always travel with an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and use it to clean the tray tables as well. Using a paper towel to shield your hands in the bathroom is a good way to avoid catching colds and flu as well. Here’s how the CDC instructs airline staff to protect themselves and you.

Q: Can a person catch or transmit Ebola once they get well?

A: A person is no longer contagious once they survive the disease, except for the three-month warning about semen and vaginal fluids. Surviving the disease provides at least 10 years of immunity, possibly more, according to the CDC.

Q: Where did Ebola come from?

A: The first Ebola outbreaks occurred in remote African villages near tropical rain forests, according to WHO. Wild mammals, such as monkeys, apes or bats, are thought to have given the disease to humans. Some experts believe that the practice of preparing or eating “bush meat” (perhaps monkeys in this case) may have caused transmission.

This is why dogs are also at risk for getting and transmitting ebola. There is no evidence that mosquitoes or insects can transmit Ebola.

Q: What are the symptoms?

A: The CDC lists key Ebola symptoms as follows:

  • Fever
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Weakness
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal (stomach) pain
  • Unexplained hemorrhage (bleeding or bruising)

Symptoms may appear from two to 21 days after exposure to Ebola, but the average is eight to 10 days.

Q: What is my real risk?

A: If you, a friend or family member is traveling to or from countries in West Africa, especially Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia, be observant of symptoms and take precautions based on the advice above because you have an elevated risk.

West African community leaders in the U.S. are working together to help prevent an outbreak here, so find out what’s being done in your area.

Health care workers and hospital staffs also carry a higher risk and should seek guidance from their institution. Visit WHO’s Travel and Transport warnings page for updates.

As Senegal and other African nations with far fewer health resources than the United States have proven, Ebola can be beaten, but hysteria, xenophobia and conspiracy theories are not part of the cure.