Recently, West Africa has been hit hard with a deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus. Though most outbreaks have remained in Africa, Ebola has been a household word in the United States since the 1990s. In 1995, the film “Outbreak”, starring Morgan Freeman, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Dustin Hoffman, and Kevin Spacey, explored what it might look like if a virus like Ebola were to break out in the US.
Since then, Ebola has been a sort of boogeyman of a disease. In the West, we all know about it, but we rarely give it much thought. However, with recent outbreaks in Uganda and Guinea, we might want to reconsider our stance.Dr. Sanjay Gupta visited Conakry, Guinea earlier this year to report on the virus and how cases have started showing up in more populated areas.
How Ebola Is Spread
According to Dr. Gupta, Ebola has an incubation period of between 2 and 21 days. Ebola is not easily caught, but is rather considered to be a “spillover” disease, which can jump from animals to humans. Contracting Ebola requires direct exposure to the blood or other bodily fluids of an infected patient, either human or animal.
Because scientists do not know the exact source of the disease, it is impossible to tell people in potential danger of contracting Ebola that they should just avoid contact with one animal or another. Further, fruit bats are suspected to be the natural reservoir for Ebola, but there have been no documented cases of humans getting the disease directly from the bats. That means that the bats transmit Ebola to other animals, which then transmit it to humans.
According toMiriam Falco, writing for CNN, it’s difficult to catch Ebola early on because its symptoms often mimic the symptoms of other, less serious, diseases. After the disease’s incubation period, it usually presents with flu-like symptoms, including fever, joint stiffness, muscle pain, and diarrhea.
Once Ebola progresses, it clots the blood in the patient’s blood vessels but no other blood. The patient will begin bleeding from the nose, eyes, and mouth, and bleeding cannot be stopped. There is no known cure, and a vaccine is still years away. Diagnosis with Ebola is a death sentence. According to Gupta, patients diagnosed with the disease are isolated and administered fluids, nutrients, and oxygen to make them as comfortable as possible in the time they have left.
What Do Americans Have to Fear?
The outbreak in Guinea this year was the first to reach a city with a larger population and international airport. Because the disease kills so quickly after its incubation period, and because it has always been contracted by people living in small villages in remote areas, Ebola has not been a threat to countries outside of Africa until now.
With such a variable incubation time, it is possible that someone carrying Ebola could make it onto a plane and across the Atlantic Ocean before showing symptoms. Unlike other viruses, such as chicken pox, though, Ebola is not contagious during its incubation. Until symptoms become apparent, the patient cannot pass Ebola on to those around him or her.
Furthermore, as we mentioned earlier, Ebola is not easily caught. It requires direct contact, but Dr. Gupta does warn that it can be spread from a microscopic drop of blood or bodily fluid through any tiny opening or abrasion in the skin.
Ebola in the US Is Unlikely But Possible
Fortunately, our western culture avoids contact with dead or dying people. The most common people to catch Ebola in an outbreak are a patient’s close family, who shared space and contact with that person when symptoms first appeared.
The only way to ensure that Ebola never leaves Africa would be to quarantine all people leaving the continent for the maximum incubation time of 21 days. As that is impossible, there is a small chance that we could see cases of Ebola in the United States in the coming years. We may not have a vaccine yet, but our customs and the sanitary precautions our medical professionals take on a regular basis could very well protect us from large outbreaks.
Filed in: Ebola Virus