Yesterday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed that a patient in Dallas has officially become the first confirmed case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States. He recently flew to Dallas from Liberia, and started exhibiting symptoms after he landed here. Prior to this, the only Ebola cases in the United States were people who had been diagnosed in West Africa and then flown to the U.S. for care.
The man who was found to have Ebola arrived in Dallas on September 20 to visit his family. His symptoms first developed on September 24. On September 26, he initially sought care but was sent away from the hospital–the first symptoms of Ebola, like fever and muscle soreness, resemble many other less severe ailments. (Doctors did ask about his travel history, but the AP is reporting that that information did not make it to all those who were treating him.) He returned with worse symptoms on September 28, and was placed in isolation. Yesterday, September 30, tests came back positive for Ebola.
Because this is the first time Ebola has been diagnosed in this country, the news has sparked concern and fear in many outlets. To some degree, it makes sense–Ebola has a high mortality rate, no known cure, and can cause some pretty scary symptoms.
Despite that, for the average Texan, the answer to the question “Should I be worried about getting Ebola?” is a resounding “No.” Not only is it difficult to catch the Ebola virus, the public health system in this country is more than sufficiently prepared to contain the virus so it doesn’t continue to spread.
First and foremost, though Ebola is a communicable disease, it’s not actually that easily spread. It is only spread through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids–“vomit, sweat, blood, feces, urine or saliva.” If you have not come into direct contact with the vomit, sweat, blood, feces, urine, or saliva of someone who may have Ebola, you are not at risk of contracting the disease.
What’s more, Ebola is only contagious once a patient has begun showing symptoms of the disease. Those symptoms include “fever, muscle pain, headache and a sore throat followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function.” In some cases, Ebola, which is a hemorrhagic fever, can lead to internal and external bleeding–the scariest symptom of the disease–but that doesn’t always happen. When the current Ebola patient traveled to Dallas from Liberia, he was asymptomatic, meaning that nobody who was on the flight with him is at risk of contracting the disease.
Moreover, our public health system is absolutely equipped to handle the disease and stop it from spreading. As Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress noted, “Our sophisticated hospital system can easily isolate patients so they don’t spread Ebola to other people, and medical experts have been preparing for weeks for an eventual diagnosis in the U.S.” In fact, the epidemiologist at Texas Presbyterian Hospital, where the patient is being treated, told the press that they “have had a plan in place for some time now for a patient presenting with possible Ebola,” and are “well-prepared” to handle the case.
Public health professionals know well how to stop the spread of diseases that are transmitted through bodily fluids. Ezra Klein laid the process out at Vox:
- The techniques are laborious, but known. You isolate those who have contracted the disease, or might have contracted it. You find out who’s been near them. You screen them for the disease. You isolate anyone who shows symptoms. You do this until the disease is stamped out. It works. And modern public-health systems know how to do it.
The problem in West Africa, as Klein pointed out, is that not all public health systems are modern. While Liberia, one of the nations hardest hit by Ebola, spends $65 on healthcare per person per year, the United States spends $8,895. The U.S. also has things like a well-developed sanitation system, which prevents people from being exposed to the bodily waste of a person infected with Ebola.
Public health officials in Dallas are already working to track down and monitor everyone who came into contact with the Ebola patient since his symptoms emerged. And while Twitter may be worrying that those individuals are just being “monitored” and not already quarantined, it’s important to remember that people with Ebola aren’t contagious until symptoms start to show. Those exposed to the patient are properly being monitored “for symptoms every day for 21 days — the full incubation period of the disease. Most people develop symptoms within eight to 10 days of being exposed.” If any of those individuals start showing symptoms too (which they haven’t yet), they will also be isolated to eliminate risk of further spread.
To recap, if you aren’t one of the handful of people who had direct exposure to the current Ebola patient (and you’d know who you are because the CDC would have contacted you already), you are not at risk of getting Ebola–there’s no need to worry. In fact, if you’re a Texan, Greg Abbott is a greater threat to your health than Ebola. His refusal to expand Medicaid will put a strain on Texas hospitals, while the abortion restrictions he supports are leading to worse outcomes for Texas children’s health.
So overall, you shouldn’t be worried about getting Ebola. But your health is still at risk–unless you take action, you’ll get Greg Abbott as governor.