Over the course of the last few weeks, you've probably heard a lot about the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Unfortunately, it seems that Ebola season is in full swing, and it has a lot of people worried.
In some ways, the fear is understandable. Ebola is a virus that has one of the highest death rates of any known disease. Of those who are infected, some ninety percent will not survive. The disease is characterized by flu like symptoms, excessive bleeding from bodily orifices, hemorrhaging, organ failure, and other nightmarish symptoms. Fortunately, Ebola has been mostly restricted to localized parts of Africa, as lack of roads restricts an infected person’s ability to travel and (thus) spread the disease. Moreover, areas that have infected individuals are subject to strict quarantine.
However, in many ways, this is our only defense—quarantine and travel restrictions. And this is precisely what has people so concerned, as recently, two American aid workers were evacuated from Liberia to Emory University hospital (located in Atlanta, Georgia), where they are being treated for Ebola. A number of individuals have raged against transporting the aid workers back to the United States, as they fear that the virus will spread to the American public.
But before we start crying about the Apocalypse, let's get the facts:
- 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.
- Since we know that Ebola is spread through bodily fluids, doctors and other medical personnel will have head-to-toe protective gear. In most nations where the disease quickly spreads, they do not have access to these protective measures. As a result, the highest infection rate is found in doctors and nurses.
- Worried about a traveler unknowingly bringing Ebola into an uninfected nation? Don't. The United States, and other nations, have issued a Level 3 Warning for all affected nations. There are very strict screening processes for all travelers who live in, or visit, nations with Ebola.
- True, death rates reach 90% in many outbreaks. However, fatality has also been as low as 25% when patients have access to modern medicine (as was the case in Uganda in 2007). Currently, the rate in the latest outbreak has reached a fatality of nearly 60%, but those are in areas that do not have access to the necessary medical resources. If the disease reaches the U.S., patients would be a lot more likely to survive, as modern medicine can fight the symptoms that may often lead to death (diarrhea, dehydration, etc.) very effectively.
- We don't have a way to beat Ebola...yet. In an article published in Nature, researchers that were working in Fort Detrick in Maryland announced that they may have found a potential cure. The scientists have discovered a molecule that can be used to stop the virus (and other viruses in the same family) in its tracks. This molecule is so effective because it looks a lot like the “A” that makes up DNA: adenosine. The molecule is called ” BCX4430,” and since it looks so much like Adenosine, viruses like Ebola can accidentally use it as a building block when trying to grow inside our cells. Ultimately, this is fantastic news for us (not so fantastic for the virus) as the use of this molecule blocks the virus’ growth and reproduction (effectively stopping the virus).