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Why you Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Ebola as a Traveler to West Africa

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As of this writing, over 700 people have died in what is being called the worst outbreak of Ebola on record. The outbreak has been concentrated in the West African countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, and it’s possible that the disease will spread into neighboring countries (there has been one death in Nigeria – a Liberian man who traveled with the disease).

What you need to know about Ebola

Ebola is a particularly devastating disease for several reasons:

  • There is no treatment, vaccine or cure
  • It is fatal in many cases (in West Africa, the rate is currently hovering around 60%)
  • Controlling the disease requires an effort to quarantine patients, which can be difficult for family and loved ones

Ebola is a notorious illness for these three reasons. It is known as a viral hemorrhagic fever, which means that it causes bleeding in places that are not supposed to bleed. However, the hollywood notion of blood pouring out of every orifice can be exaggerated, and many patients do not experience the full spectrum of symptoms. In fact, some patients have symptoms that resemble a flu or malaria more than anything else.

But the bottom line is that Ebola is incredibly lethal. While this outbreak has been less deadly when compared to previous episodes, it is still killing at least 60% of infected patients. While there is no treatment, medical attention is critical. Doctors can supply fluids and treat any secondary illnesses or infections should they arise. Aggressive and early medical care can be credited for saving the lives of many Ebola patients.

Why you should not be afraid of Ebola as a traveler

Here is what you need to know about Ebola transmission:

  • Ebola is not airborne. It can only be transmitted if you have direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. Proximity alone is not enough to transmit the disease.
  • Ebola is only contagious once symptoms are present. While Ebola has a gestation period of up to 21 days, it is not contagious unless symptoms are present.
  • Ebola can also be transmitted by touching and/or consuming contaminated animals. Contaminated bush meat is what many medical professionals and researchers think caused this latest outbreak.

When you look at the current cases of Ebola, most of them fall into three categories: family and loved ones who are coming in close contact with the infected patient, health workers and those who prepare bodies for burial and those who ate contaminated bush meat.

As a traveler, it is extremely unlikely that you will contract Ebola due to the way the disease is transmitted.

If you are wondering why the number of cases seems to be on the rise, it’s important to look at local infrastructure and consider the fact that many people in this region are not familiar with a disease like this. Malaria, yes, even typhoid and amoebic dysentery, but none of these diseases preclude loved ones from having close contact with an infected patient.

Right now, there is a disconnect between what governments are doing and what people are thinking and feeling at a local level. Radical actions like closing borders and banning flights may seem like the right approach, but what’s really needed is a broad education effort that is effectively implemented.

If you are a traveler to Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone, here are a few things you can do:

  • Avoid eating bush meat of any kind, even if you are confident in the source
  • Avoid medical centers that are treating Ebola patients

You do not need to cancel your trip or avoid human contact once you arrive.

Recommended reading:

Kim Yi Dionne has been following the outbreak and offering much needed perspective: Ebola patients are real people, deserving of more

Another important piece by her: Ebola outbreak spotlights the limits of local and international response

Vox, who can be irritating with their attempts to reduce everything into a simple equation, has a good interview with an infectious disease epidemiologist here: Should you be afraid of the Ebola threat?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.

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