What's so scary about Ebola?

Washington - The United States' top disease detective calls Ebola a "painful, dreadful, merciless virus".

The World Health Organisation has declared the outbreak in West Africa an international emergency, killing more than 900 people and spreading.

That's scary and serious. But it also cries out for context.

Aids alone takes more than a million lives per year in Africa, a thousand times the toll of this Ebola outbreak so far.

Lung infections such as pneumonia are close behind as the No 2 killer. Malaria and diarrhoea claim hundreds of thousands of African children each year.

In the United States, where heart attacks and cancer are the biggest killers, the risk of contracting the Ebola virus is close to zero.

Americans fretting about their own health would be better off focusing on getting a flu shot this fall. Flu is blamed for about 24 000 US deaths per year.

To put the Ebola threat in perspective, here are some reasons to be concerned about the outbreak, and reasons not to fear it:

Why it's scary

There is no cure for Ebola haemorrhagic fever.

More than half of people infected in this outbreak have died. Death rates in some past outbreaks reached 90%.

It's a cruel end that comes within days. Patients grow feverish and weak, suffering through body aches, vomiting, diarrhoea and internal bleeding, sometimes bleeding from the nose and ears.

The damage can spiral far beyond the patients themselves.

Because it's spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick patients, Ebola takes an especially harsh toll on doctors and nurses, already in short supply in areas of Africa hit by the disease.

Outbreaks spark fear and panic

Health workers and clinics have come under attack from residents, who sometimes blame foreign doctors for the deaths. People with Ebola or other illnesses may fear going to a hospital, or may be shunned by friends and neighbours.

Two of the worst-hit countries, Liberia and Sierra Leone sent troops to quarantine areas with Ebola cases. The aim was to stop the disease's spread but the action also created hardship for many residents.

Where it is

The outbreak began in Guinea in March before spreading to neighbouring Sierra Leone and Liberia. A traveller recently carried it farther, to Nigeria, leading to a few cases in the giant city of Lagos.

Ebola emerged in 1976. It has been confirmed in 10 African nations, but never before in the region of West Africa.

Lack of experience with the disease there has contributed to its spread. So has a shortage of medical personnel and supplies, widespread poverty, and political instability.

Sierra Leone still is recovering from a decade of civil war in which children were forced into fighting. Liberia, originally founded by freed American slaves, also endured civil war in the 1990s. Guinea is trying to establish a young and fragile democracy.

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, boasts great oil wealth but most of its people are poor. The government is battling Islamic militants in the north who have killed thousands of people and kidnapped more than 200 schoolgirls in April.

This outbreak has proved more difficult to control than previous ones because the disease is crossing national borders, and is spreading in more urban areas.

Tom Frieden, director of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, predicts that within a few weeks, Ebola will sicken more people than all previous occurrences combined. Already more than 1 700 cases have been reported.

Global health officials say it will take months to fully contain the outbreak, even if all goes as well as can be hoped.

Reasons not to be afraid

Ebola is devastating for those it affects. But most people don't need to fear it. Why?

Ebola doesn't spread easily, the way a cold virus or the flu does. It is only spread by direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, saliva, sweat and urine. Family members have contracted it by caring for their relatives or handling an infected body as part of burial practices. People aren't contagious until they show symptoms, Frieden said. Symptoms may not appear until 21 days after exposure.

"People should not be afraid of casual exposure on a subway or a plane", said Dr Robert Black, professor of international health at Johns Hopkins University.

Health officials around the developed world know how to stop Ebola. Frieden described tried-and-true measures: find and isolate all possible patients, track down people they may have exposed, and ensure strict infection-control procedures while caring for patients. Every past outbreak of Ebola has been brought under control.

The CDC is sending at least 50 staff members to West Africa to help fight the disease, while more than 200 work on the problem from the agency's headquarters in Atlanta. The WHO is urging nations worldwide to send money and resources to help.

It's true that Ebola could be carried into the United States by a traveller, possibly putting family members or health care workers at risk. It's never happened before. But if the disease does show up in the US, Frieden said, doctors and hospitals know how to contain it quickly.

"We are confident that a large Ebola outbreak in the United States will not occur", Frieden told a congressional hearing on Thursday.

Mark Hicks 2014/08/11 11:54:31 AM
Maybe not this mutation, but the next or the next or the next. Eventually if we continue deforestation, hunting bush meat and not completing antibiotic courses there's going to be a biggie. But not this one, it doesn't have an effective transmission method. Maybe the next will.
Sarah Rutherford Smith 2014/08/11 12:09:46 PM
Weak reporting yet again from News 24. Aids is a level 3 virus, Ebola is a level 5 virus. the only reason Ebola is not a huge risk is because it kills its host so quickly, it does not have a huge life span. However, if Ebola mutates we are pretty screwed.
Leftalready 2014/08/11 01:00:21 PM
Lovely reassuring article for Americans…. I live in West Africa. (Senegal) It is summer. It is hot. we are all pouring with perspiration all the time. The borders and airports are as porous as a bucket without a bottom. people are crammed into impossibly small accommodation without basics like running water or electricity. Public transport is like being squashed into a sardine can. Everywhere you go, airports, markets, shops, public transport you are pushed and squashed up against another sweating human being that you do not know from Adam… people cough, sneeze, spit all the time. yes, maybe it is not an airborne disease like the common cold or flu but nobody is talking about aerosol-borne (droplets in the air after a cough or sneeze) when you are standing or sitting right next to the person. Not being alarmist but I am avoiding going to crowded places, public transport and airports. Also no longer shaking hands and airkissing with people I do not know very well. There are no confirmed cases in Senegal yet but it is probably only a matter of time...
ProfAndyZulu 2014/08/11 01:23:01 PM
Yes, and did you know that the US government holds a patent on the Ebola virus? I wonder how that fact figures into the current equation?
Eduan Naudé364 2014/08/11 06:13:22 PM
If you have a proper immune system and have access to proper medical care.... you WILL survive... the scary thing is getting ebola and being stuck in another country and your home country will do nothing about it... So SA government...what will you do if one of our citizens test positive for Ebola????? will you medevac us or leave us to fate in a west-African country?
Zuko Maliphale Mutoto Zeiler 2014/08/12 10:52:00 AM
Yha am the one that its so scared of this virus but i think its few minuts now God come to collect his chidrens
Daniel Mcintyre 2014/08/15 03:26:22 AM
I think the advice that we don't need to worry is untrue. Ebola unlike colds is spread by all bodily fluids including sweat. The virus has between 4 - 21 day incubation period, sometimes less. After that it starts to cause symptoms similiar to cold and flu. During this initial period the virus is being secreted in sweat, through sexual contact and also via mucous from the cold like symptoms. In 4 - 21 days a person infected can travel anywhere in the world. Example: Person is infected with Ebola in Sierra Leone, they fly to New York. 8 days later they take the subway to work. They have a slight temperature and runny nose. On the way to work they buy a paper, passing a number of coins with virus. Ebola remains infectious for up to several days outside the host. It takes only 4 - 10 virus particles for infection to occur. These coins then circulate among the population. The person buys a ticket (transmission), uses the elevator or escalator (transmission), holds the rail in the subway (transmission), shakes hands at work (transmission), uses telephone (transmission). In 2 days while the person is shedding virus onto surfaces in a city like New York, hundreds of people are repeating the same actions picking up those virus particles, becoming infected and starting their own little trails before they become truly sick.