The outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus in West Africa and its more recent appearance here in the U.S. have spawned an abundance of myths about how the virus is spread and treated. (Among the crazier ones we’ve heard: If you kiss someone who’s died of Ebola you’re immune to it; special water can kill the virus; and the outbreak is a presidential plot to infect Americans.) Here is the straight scoop on 10 myths about Ebola virus.
Fact: It’s possible but highly unlikely. The virus is transmitted through the body fluids of infected people—blood, urine, feces, vomit, and, to a lesser extent, saliva. If a person with Ebola were next to you on a plane and sneezed on you, and one of those airborne particles landed in your eyes, mouth, or on broken skin, it could cause infection. But this scenario is very unlikely. People with Ebola aren’t contagious until they become symptomatic, and someone with serious symptoms of Ebola would probably be too sick to be on a plane.
Fact: Many U.S. hospitals are equipped to handle Ebola, meaning they have the necessary protective clothing on hand—including masks, gloves, gowns, and eye protection—to keep hospital workers from getting infected when they treat Ebola patients. The problem isn’t the lack of equipment, but the fact that few hospitals have provided adequate training to their employees on how to properly use it. Hospitals are acting quickly to change that, though, which should reduce the risk of infection for their workers.
Fact: Not so, although there are other reasons to avoid mosquitos, like the risk of West Nile virus. Like HIV, Ebola can only be transmitted between mammals.
Fact: Ebola isn’t a water-borne disease. If there were significant fecal or blood contamination of the water supply (which is thankfully not a concern in the U.S.), in theory it would be possible, though still highly unlikely.
Fact: No. You would have to touch their bodily secretions, feces, or blood and then touch your eyes, mouth, or nose. Shaking hands won’t do it.
Fact: The initial cause of human outbreaks is actually other mammals. Bats carry the virus, but it doesn’t make them sick. Many primates can become infected from bats; they get sick like humans. Humans can get infected from bats or other primates (by touching them, eating their meat, or coming into contact with their blood). Sick humans then transmit the virus to other humans by contact with their blood, feces, or other bodily fluids. It’s not surprising, then, that most human transmission is from patient to health care worker.
Fact: No, but mortality rates are high. There are three Ebola viruses that can infect humans, and their mortality rates differ. Ebola Zaire, the strain causing the current outbreak, has a mortality rate of about 30 percent if there’s optimal medical care. The death rate from the current outbreak has been higher than that, about 50 percent, because of limited access to proper medical care in the West African countries where the outbreak is centered.
Fact: Most unlikely. We know how the virus is transmitted, many hospitals will be capable of caring for Ebola patients, and we have the ability to identify exposed people and ensure that they take the necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. Remember, family members of the only person who died from Ebola in the U.S. lived with him before and while he was ill. They were removed from quarantine after 21 days without any evidence of infection.
Fact: You can’t buy effective treatment anywhere. Antibody therapy (serum taken from people who have survived Ebola) is believed to be the most effective treatment, and it’s available only in hospitals.
Fact: We and other wealthy nations have a moral obligation to help people in West Africa. Plus, for our own sake we need to help control the epidemic where it’s centered to prevent its spread to many other countries. To date the U.S. has provided money, infrastructure assistance, on-the-ground expertise from the CDC, and military assistance. Other countries, including Cuba, have sent physicians.