America’s ears are ringing as the threat of Ebola spreads across the country, the hysteria spreading faster than the disease itself. The disease first entered the country with Thomas Duncan, the American Patient Zero who succumbed to the disease in early October. There are a handful of other American patients being treated in the United States, while the number of infected patients has risen in countries such as Liberia, Guinea, Nigeria, among others. But what is Ebola, and why is the threat looming over the heads of millions? Most of all: why is the media fueling the frenzied fire, rather than helping the public understand the epidemic and ways it can be avoided?
Containing the chaos is almost as dire a situation as combating the disease itself; the key to doing so is increasing awareness of what the disease is, how it can spread, and how it can be both prevented and treated. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the Ebola virus is an infection spread through bodily fluids (eg, blood, saliva, or semen) and takes anywhere from two to 21 days (with an average of 14 days) to exhibit symptoms.
Patients will likely first experience fever, fatigue, headache, sore throat, and muscle weakness or pain. Because these symptoms are so common in other types of infections, Ebola is often not the first presumed diagnosis; more and more hospitals throughout the country are increasing precautions when patients report these symptoms, especially if their paths have crossed with diagnosed cases of Ebola. As the disease progresses, patients can develop a rash, gastrointestinal symptoms including diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, limited kidney and liver function, and less frequently, patients can experience bleeding both internally and externally. Ebola-positive patients are not considered infectious until after the onset of symptoms.
Ebola was named for the Ebola River close to where the disease was first identified. It is believed that the virus originated in a certain species of fruit bats, and can be spread to humans and other wild animals native to rainforests. It is no surprise, then, that the first known cases of Ebola were diagnosed in two villages close in proximity to rainforests, one in Sudan and the other in the Democratic Republic of Congo, both in 1976. There are five known strains of the Ebola virus, four of which can be contracted by humans and only three of them have caused major outbreaks. The 2014 outbreak that originated in west Africa and was brought to the US is of the Zaire strain.
According to the World Health Organization, the fatality rate among infected Ebola patients is 50%, and chances of survival significantly increase if the disease is diagnosed and symptoms are treated early. Currently, treatments for Ebola patients include rehydration and treatment of specific symptoms. There is no vaccine or treatment for Ebola itself, due in large part to the fact it has been hard to study the disease in such isolated areas of the world where outbreaks normally occur. There are currently two vaccines being evaluated and several drug therapies being developed, but as of now none of them have been approved. With the introduction of Ebola into the United States in 2014, the possibility of obtaining samples to analyze has been fully realized. Scientists can begin tracking the mechanism of action of the virus to understand how it affects the human body and how the virus can be prevented and cured.
The first man to test positive for Ebola in the United States in 2014 was the now-deceased Thomas Duncan. The Liberian native is believed to have contracted the disease after aiding a pregnant woman and then traveling to the US. A major fact to note is that while Ebola is extremely infectious, it is not actually extremely contagious. It is not an airborne disease such as chicken pox or the measles, so the chances of catching Ebola simply by being in a public place such as a classroom are slim. Still, hospital personnel caring for Ebola-positive patients have taken great precautionary measures in order to contain the infection and prevent it from spreading to any other members of the population.
As of October 17, CNN reports that there are just eight confirmed cases of Ebola inside the United States. Of those, only one has died. Three of the cases have been treated and discharged from hospitals, and the rest are currently receiving treatment. There was one American who contracted the disease in Liberia and died in Nigeria after caring for an infected family member. There are over two hundred people who are undergoing a 21-day monitoring period after coming in contact with Ebola-positive patients. Recently, a Yale University student returning from a trip to Liberia was placed in isolation after exhibiting symptoms of Ebola, but so far tests have come back negative for the infection.
Although this outbreak of Ebola has been called the worst outbreak in history, it is important to remember that there numerous other diseases, both communicable and noncommunicable, that cause the deaths of millions each year. WHO reports that noncommunicable diseases, or diseases that are not contagious, were responsible for a staggering 68% of deaths in 2012, in comparison with 16% of deaths attributed to communicable diseases. Cardiovascular disease is the number one health threat worldwide, responsible for 30% of deaths globally in 2012 reported by WHO.
It seems each day there are new reports of people being tested for the infection and new restrictions and regulations being passed as the worldwide Ebola threat rapidly spreads across the globe. Knowledge of what the infection is, how symptoms are presented, and how the disease can be contained and treated are the first steps to eradicating the disease in the US. There’s also a dire need to contain the panic surrounding Ebola and educate people about it so they can become cautious without becoming hysterical if the disease should happen to spread locally.