You’re Almost Definitely Not Going to Die: An Ebola Primer


The Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa is definitely nothing to trifle with. It’s killed more than 800 people already, in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea and Nigeria, and Margaret Chan, the director general of the World Health Organization said Friday that the “outbreak is moving faster than our efforts to control it.” That’s not the kind of thing you want to hear.

And with news that two people have been treated at New York hospitals with possible symptoms of the disease, there’s some understandable anxiety. But take a deep breath.

Here are a few things to know:

It’s Not That Easy to Catch Ebola

Ebola is not an airborne virus. That was the big concern in the 1995 classic Outbreak, which starred Dustin Hoffman, a firebomb, and a government propagated, ebola-like pandemic. If, like a certain Village Voice reporter, you inexplicably decided to watch Outbreak recently on Netflix — like three damn weeks ago — that might be something you’re worried about, too. Especially on, say, the subway.

But in the real world, ebola is transmitted only through close contact with bodily fluids. That means blood, saliva and urine. And it means that the guy on the train with a nasty cough is not going to infect you, and even rubbing all up against him during rush hour, if that’s your thing, isn’t going to pose a risk.

A few days ago, the doctor who first identified the virus, Peter Piot, addressed the mass transit question directly, when he told the Telegraph in London that “I wouldn’t be worried to sit next to someone with Ebola virus on the Tube,” — which is just London-talk for “subway,” — “as long as they don’t vomit on you or something. This is an infection that requires very close contact.”

And while nothing’s impossible in New York — what a town! — you’re probably not going to get puked on during your morning commute. Almost definitely not.

An Outbreak Here Would Look Much Different Than What’s Going on in Africa

The U.S. is blessed with an exorbitantly expensive but actually pretty well-run medical system, at least when it comes to an outbreak like Ebola. We have good communication between hospitals and we can marshall huge amounts of resources when we need to. The fight against Ebola overseas has been hampered by misinformation and a system that’s terribly underfunded. WHO recently released $100 million for intensified efforts, and more will need to be done. But as Dr. William Shaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, told ABC News, “We don’t have the environment (in the U.S.) that is conducive to this virus. We might get some imported cases, and God forbid it might spread to a healthcare worker but it would not spread further.”

Don’t Get Too Worked up by News Reports

The media is really good at reporting things that might be happening, but we pretty much suck when it comes to correcting the record. When a New Yorker who was feeling under the weather checked into an NYU Langone Center last week, you probably saw it on your Facebook feed, accompanied by a lot of exclamation points. But that guy didn’t have Ebola.

Likewise, the man who was checked into Mount Sinai Hospital over the weekend with “possible symptoms” — early symptoms look a lot like basically every other viral infection known to man, like fever, aches and gastrointestinal distress — that too was well-reported. But it turns out that patient is also “unlikely” to be infected, according to NYC health officials.

Even the confirmed cases of ebola have to be taken in perspective. When an American doctor working overseas was relocated to the U.S. for treatment — under high security and tight quarantine — it produced a spasm of fear that the disease could spread on this side of the Atlantic. (It also prompted conspiracy theories about a George Soros-funded, Obama-backed plot to destroy America, and a resurgence in the nation’s truly deadly scourge, Donald Trump’s stupid mouth-hole.)

But the American doctor, Kent Brantly, is receiving an experimental treatment and seems to be improving. Another American infected in Africa, missionary Nancy Writebol, is expected to arrive for treatment in the U.S. in the coming days. Both of the patients will be locked way in isolation units, unable even to have physical contact with their families. That’s pretty terrible for them, but should keep the rest of us safe.

Ebola is Not Untreatable

Past outbreaks of Ebola have produced a terrifyingly high mortality rate — up to 90 percent — but there’s no reason to think that an outbreak here would come close to those kinds of numbers. The latest WHO numbers say there have been 1,603 infections and 887 deaths as of this morning. Fifty-fifty odds aren’t exactly comforting, but they’re a lot better than 9 to 1. And with proper medical care, it is most definitely possible to survive the disease.

And the Bad News

Yeah, Ebola is pretty scary. It can’t be a fun way to go. It also has a long incubation period, up to two weeks, which means that infected people may not know they’re carrying the disease for quite a while.

But the bottom line is, in this country at least, Ebola is no reason to go prepper, or to firebomb a small town in the Pacific Northwest.

It is true, though, that there are a large number of people in four west African countries dying, right now, of a really awful disease. So if we insist on worrying, maybe we can worry about them.