Let’s get a few things out of the way: the latest outbreak of Ebola is the worst on record. Nearly 900 people have died as of this writing. While the number of cases is falling in Guinea – the country where the outbreak started – the disease is now circulating in two neighboring countries – Liberia and Sierra Leone.
Ebola has also shown up in Nigeria after an infected Liberian flew to Lagos. The outbreak is likely going to get worse before it gets better, and there is a good chance that cases will emerge in as-yet unaffected countries.
If you are living in a Western country, the news media has probably scared the bejeesus out of you. Suddenly Ebola is everywhere and we are all at risk! Not really.
If you are worried about contracting Ebola in a Western industrialized country, you have an irrational fear. If you are fearful of Ebola as a traveler to West Africa, I can understand where you are coming from, but let me explain why you should not be afraid.
Ebola is not built for an epidemic
Most people are under the impression that Ebola spreads like wildfire. One infected person on an airplane and the whole plane is infected. Right? No.
- Ebola is transmitted through contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Close proximity to an infected person is not enough to transmit the disease.
- Ebola is contagious when symptoms are present. Ebola has a gestation period that can last up to 21 days. However, until an infected person begins having symptoms, they are unable to transmit the disease.
- Ebola is debilitating in a short period of time. Once symptoms manifest, an infected person can deteriorate rapidly. While this is awful for the infected person, it is good news for the general population, because it is harder for the infected person to spread the disease.
- Ebola is not airborne. Did we already say that? Oh well, it’s worth repeating
The initial outbreak of Ebola was most likely caused by contaminated bat soup (this is the other way to contract the disease – eat contaminated bushmeat) in Guinea. When people began dying of the disease, local residents did not know the cause. They did not know that they could contract the disease if they came in contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person or if they touched the body (at a funeral) of an infected person that had passed away.
Family members and loved ones soon fell ill, and before long, Ebola made it to two neighboring countries. Health workers have also been affected, and it’s estimated that up to 70 deaths may come from their ranks.
All of this is to say that you are vulnerable if you are having repeated close contact with an infected person. If you sit next to someone with Ebola on the airplane, you will not become infected. If they vomit on you, well then, ok, that’s a different story.
Ebola has spread as much as it has not because it is prone to massive epidemics, but because people on the ground are completely unfamiliar with this disease, and governments were slow to react.
This is an awful disease, and it will surely claim more lives in the months to come. However, you should not be fearful as a traveler. What you can do is the following:
- Avoid bush meat of all kinds. It’s not worth the risk
- Avoid medical centers that are treating Ebola patients. That’s not to say you will become infected if you enter, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.
- Avoid funerals of Ebola patients. Once again, it’s not worth the risk.
As a traveler to West Africa, there are other diseases that you are far more likely to contract. Thankfully, most of them have vaccinations or prophylactic measures.
We previously talked about Ebola here