The current West African Ebola outbreak has claimed more than 4,000 lives, but recent media coverage has also ignited a firestorm of panic and misinformation regarding the virus. In some cases, the myths surrounding Ebola make it more difficult for health workers to combat and contain it, and even harmless rumors can create unnecessary paranoia. Below are some of the most common and persistent myths about the Ebola virus.
It is Highly Contagious:
Ebola is highly infectious, but it is not very contagious. In humans, the virus spreads through close contact with infected bodily fluids such as sweat, saliva, blood, fecal matter, and semen. Ebola is not considered an airborne virus, since it cannot survive in the open air or travel long distances. Casual contact with an infected person is considered to bear a low risk of infection, which is why the majority of cases are reported amongst health care workers in constant close contact with infected patients. As viruses go, Ebola spreads at a much slower rate than most. Smallpox, which was successfully eliminated by a targeted vaccine program, was more than twice as contagious, while measles is a staggering nine times more contagious than Ebola.
Outside Assistance is Making it Worse:
One of the more dangerous myths about Ebola is that international aid efforts are making the outbreak worse. In some regions, there are even rumors that the virus was introduced by international healthworkers, creating distrust and hindering relief efforts. Some people also worry that sending health workers increases the odds of the disease spreading in other parts of the world, but current evidence suggests that this fear is unfounded.
There is No Hope for a Cure:
While there are currently no cures or vaccines for Ebola, that doesn’t mean that one won’t be developed. There are a number of promising treatments and vaccines that are being tested by the World HealthOrganization to ensure that they are effective and free of harmful side-effects. Many experts predict that a vaccine may even be developed and approved within a matter of months.
All Ebola Victims Die:
While Ebola is undoubtedly a dangerous and often-fatal virus, it is important to understand the data relating to its mortality rate in the proper context. There are several strains of Ebola, each with different reported mortality rates, ranging from 20% to 90%, making it difficult to pin down an accurate figure. Moreover, experts argue that many of the deaths attributed to Ebola could be prevented if patients were treated in facilities with better access to treatment and stricter adherence to safety protocols. With state of the art medical care, the mortality rate of Ebola may even be as low as 10-20%, making it roughly as fatal as SARS.
Travel and Immigration Pose a Serious Risk:
One of the most persistent myths about Ebola is that immigrants and foreign travelers pose a major risk of spreading the virus. The simple fact is that immigrants and travelers from anywhere in the world besides West Africa are not a threat. In countries facing the Ebola epidemic, air travel has become much more restricted, and screening processes have improved for both incoming and outgoing passengers. Since a person who does not display symptoms of the virus is not contagious, it is unlikely, though not impossible, that a serious epidemic could result from air travel.
The U.S. Isn’t Prepared to Deal with Ebola:
Much of the hysteria stemming from this Ebola outbreak is based around the idea that the United States wouldn’t be able to contain the virus. However, it is important to realize that the reason Ebola poses such a threat in West Africa is due to the lack of adequate healthcare in affected countries. Ebola is no more deadly or contagious than many other diseases, but the lack of training, clean medical supplies, and personnel in West African hospitals has created a situation where the disease is able to run rampant. In a country with strong healthcare infrastructure and state of the art facilities, the Ebola virus would be much easier to contain.
Ebola is certainly a major public health priority in West Africa, but the truth is that for most of the world, it is far from the apocalyptic threat that many people claim it to be. The persistent myths and rumors above have fueled widespread paranoia and public fear about the virus, but it is vitally important to understand the facts in order to better facilitate efforts to contain and eliminate the outbreak at its source.