Let's have a heart to heart. Get everything out on the table from the get go: I am utterly disgusted by how we (the media) talk about Ebola. Today, news broke that genetic tests have confirmed that a woman in Liberia contracted Ebola after having sexual intercourse with an individual who survived the disease.
The captions that publishers chose to use along with this story? "Uh oh."
Uh oh? What do you mean "uh oh"? Ebola spreads through close, intimate contact. Moreover, we've long known that Ebola can survive outside of the human body for hours, and that it can survive inside of the body for quite some time (possibly even weeks) after a person has been cured.
So what's with the "uh oh"? What have we to fear? Is Ebola going to go rampaging across the globe?
Well, if all of us run out and have intimate contact (i.e. sex) with someone who has recently had the disease, then maybe. But honestly, I have a pretty booked calendar, and I don't think I can fit anything else in at the moment.
But seriously, I understand that we want to get people's attention; however, I really question the ethics of this kind of reporting. Ultimately, we know that many people don't read articles, just headings. So we know that an article that is packaged in this manner is really only going to do two things:
- It will cause fear.
- It will cause people to (further) distrust science reporters.
Let's be clear: At the present juncture, Ebola is not something that you need to fear. Be informed, yes, absolutely. But do not be afraid.
Notably, this assertion is not just a random guess or opinion. It stems from sound science. More specifically, it stems from a mathematical term known as “R0.” This is the 'reproduction number', and it is used by epidemiologists to indicate how infectious a specific disease is. In short, it tells you how many people, on average, will be infected by one patient.
This number gives scientists a baseline for projecting the growth of outbreaks; however, notably, this growth is based on the absence of intervention. To that end, the R0 number tells scientists how hard it will be to stop an epidemic and how much intervention will be needed.
For example, Measles is one of the most contagious diseases that we know of. Its R0 is about 18 (not fun times). This means that, if no one is vaccinated, every person who contracts the disease will likely infect an additional 18 people. Of course, this number drops to zero if everyone is vaccinated. For HIV and SARS, the R0 number is between 2 and 5. For Ebola, it’s just 2.
Which, on the grand scale, is pretty low.
Some might say that this latest announcement, in relation to the woman who contracted the disease, is notable because this is the first time that we have actually confirmed that the disease can be transmitted sexually. But here's the thing: We already know that Ebola is spread through bodily fluids (blood, semen, urine, etc.). Did anyone honestly think that it could be spread through semen, but not sex?
Because that makes absolutely no sense.
That said, it is important to know that Ebola can be spread through sex; it is important to know that we have confirmed this, and that (even if a person has been cured) you should be wary of having intimate contact (holding hands is fine, just contact where you will encounter bodily fluids), as we aren't 100% sure how long Ebola can be passed on after a person has been cured.
Previously, doctors advised that individuals wait 90 days before intimate contact, as it can survive in bodily fluids for at least that long. However, the couple in question had sex 155 days after a blood test declared that the man was clear of the virus, so it can obviously survive for a bit longer.
The results are published in the New England Journal of Medicine. It is accompanied by a new preliminary report which suggests that Ebola's genetic material can persist in semen for nine months after infection.
But this really just means that we still have a lot to learn about Ebola (no shocking revelation there). It does not mean "uh oh."
The Thing to Remember
Although we may look at a person who is infected with Ebola like some modern day Typhoid Mary, it is (for all intents and purposes) not very easy to spread Ebola. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get Ebola just by looking at an infected person. The virus is not spread through the air, but through bodily secretions (like blood or urine). Do you plan on touching an infected person’s blood or urine?
No? Then you have little to worry about.
Yes? Then seriously reevaluate your schedule and your life choices.
As ScienceAlert writes in their article:
The good news is that even though we now know sexual transmission is possible, the epidemiological evidence so far suggests that it can't be very common. There are more than 17,000 people who have survived the West African Ebola outbreak, and yet fewer than 20 suspected incidences of sexually transmitted infection have been reported.
"If sexual transmission from survivors were an important means of disease propagation, we would have seen a number of cases by now," wrote Armand Sprecher from Doctors Without Borders in Brussels, who wasn't involved in the research, in an opinion piece accompanying the research.
..."Let us not forget that survivors have already endured a painful severe illness, and many emerge from it to find that friends and family members have died. If they are then treated as pariahs and threats, we add a terrible unkindness on top of their suffering. They should be treated with all the compassion we can muster."
I just wish they had led with that, and here's why: Remember when everyone freaked out because two people in the United States had Ebola? Remember all the politicians who tried to go against sound science and confine these individuals to their houses, even though there was no scientific reason to do so?
This happens because of articles like the one linked above.