The first of two individuals who have contracted the deadly Ebola virus arrived in the US on Saturday. A second patient is scheduled to arrive Tuesday.
People are concerned for their safety, and I completely understand how you feel.
In July 2012, I was two and half weeks into my three month research trip to Tanzania when outbreaks of Ebola were reported in neighboring Uganda.
The regions that bordered Uganda were on alert. Fortunately, I was stationed in the east but my reaction was what you would expect: Get me out of here!
I contacted my supervisor and inquired about my evacuation plan.
It is a frightening prospect to have a disease with a 80-90 percent mortality rate so close to home. People are concerned that once Ebola arrives in the US, people here will get sick and the disease will spread.
There are two things, however, that are important for everyone to understand.
First, Ebola is already here in the US. Scientists have been studying the disease in well-secured laboratories for years, and there has been no trouble.
In other words, there have been no new cases or incidences of Ebola from these previous exposures to Ebola and related viral hemorrhagic fever diseases.
Second, Ebola is actually very hard to contract. Thanks to the movie Outbreak, I imagined that the hemorrhagic virus would leap frog across the landscape and I would find myself in the middle of medical quarantine zone in a few days’ time.
However, my local colleagues explained that contracting Ebola involves coming into direct contact with an infected person’s body fluids, namely blood and feces. Caretakers such as relatives and medical staff are at high risk of becoming infected. Otherwise, the chances of anyone else in the community contracting Ebola is practically zero. Transmission can be avoided by wearing protective clothing and gloves, washing your hands, and avoiding physical contact with individuals who are sick.
Before becoming alarmed, consider how likely you are to actually get sick from Ebola compared to other diseases which are more common and also dangerous.
For example, as a field ecologist, I routinely handle wild animals that are known carriers of scary diseases such as Hanta virus, monkey pox, Lassa fever, and yes Ebola, too. However, I am more worried about getting Dengue fever, malaria or Lyme disease, which are carried by biting insects that are hard to control and track.
Ebola is indeed scary, but my chances of contracting it or monkey pox or Lassa fever are actually very low. Despite the messages from the news coverage, the prevalence of Ebola is low. It isn’t as widespread as other diseases such as malaria, which is more common and widespread. Let’s compare the numbers. Ebola has killed fewer than 4,000 people — total. Malaria claimed more than 1.2 million lives in 2010 — alone.
Thanks to quick and careful responses of Ugandan Medical and public health workers, only 49 people died from Ebola and related viral hemorrhagic diseases in 2012. I feel confident that our doctors and public health staff can keep us safe here in the US.
Despite my cavalier behavior — I don’t always wear gloves when handling wild rodents, I am still here and healthy.
So far so good, yet this recent outbreak is a reminder for me to take care and protect myself more seriously. When it comes to Ebola concerns, my advice is to hold tight. Don’t freak out! Cool heads prevail in any situation, including this one.
Dr. Danielle N. Lee is a Biologist and Science Communicator who emphasizes science outreach opportunities to underserved and underrepresented groups. She was recently named as a White House Champion of Change for her work in promoting STEM Access and Diversity to African-American audiences. She is a member of the National Science & Technology News Service, a media literacy initiative to bring more science news to African-American audiences. You can follow her on Twitter at @DNLee5.