The chances of catching the West African-born virus versus the threat of the flu and pneumonia
Fears abound, but Americans have very little to worry about when it comes to contracting Ebola. While Ebola is serous and often fatal, outbreaks of the infectious disease are primarily in West Africa. “The risk to the general public in the United States is minimal,” says Dr. Christopher Lopez, medical director at the Winter Haven-based Bond Clinic. “The disease is quite difficult to transmit.”
Caused by one of the Ebola virus strains, the rare disease previously known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever can infect humans as well as monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees. It was first discovered in 1976 in Sudan and in what today is part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since its discovery near the Ebola River, it has reappeared sporadically in Africa.
“It [Ebola] is spread by unprotected, direct contact with the blood or other bodily fluids of another infected individual. It can also be transmitted by contaminated objects, such as needles or scalpels. It is not airborne or waterborne,” Dr. Lopez says.
Avoiding the disease can be as simple as avoiding travel to West Africa. If for any reason you do come in contact with someone who has been there— and who is showing symptoms of the disease— avoid direct contact with his or her bodily fluids, Dr. Lopez warns. As a general rule, never touch someone else’s needle. Infected primates and fruit bats also can pass Ebola to humans, so avoid direct contact with both, which should be relatively easy to accomplish.
While there are experimental vaccines and treatments currently in testing, there is no effective cure or vaccine. So, early detection is key. The effectiveness of treatment depends on the health of the patient and how well a person’s immune system responds.
Early symptoms of Ebola are fever, headache, diarrhea, vomiting, stomach pain, muscle pain, and unexplained bleeding or bruising. Symptoms occur within two to 21 days after exposure to the virus; a person is not contagious until symptoms arise.
When symptoms are caught early, the treatment consists of intravenous fluids and electrolytes, as well as keeping oxygen and blood pressure levels stable. Treating other infections that result from the virus also improves chances of survival.
While the disease has reached epidemic proportions in West Africa, there has only been one reported death out of four cases diagnosed in the United States. U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports 4,950 deaths this year out of 13,241 cases in multiple countries, including Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Mali and the United States.
If you’re planning to travel to West Africa, or other regions impacted by Ebola, CDC officials recommend the following:
- Practice careful hygiene. For example, wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer and avoid contact with blood and body fluids.
- Do not handle items that may have come in contact with an infected person’s blood or body fluids (such as clothes, bedding, needles, and medical equipment).
- Avoid funeral or burial rituals that require handling the body of someone who has died from Ebola.
- Avoid contact with bats and nonhuman primates or blood, fluids, and raw meat prepared from these animals.
- Avoid hospitals in West Africa where Ebola patients are being treated. The U.S. embassy or consulate is often able to provide advice on facilities.
After you return, monitor your health for 21 days and seek medical care immediately if you develop symptoms of Ebola.
While it’s understandable for people to be concerned, the average person right now has almost no chance of contracting Ebola. “Influenza and pneumonia pose a much greater threat to the health of the American public,” Dr. Lopez says. According to the CDC, roughly 36,000 people die each year from flu-related causes, and an estimated 200,000 flu-related hospitalizations occur. Annual pneumonia deaths top 52,000, or a rate of 16.8 deaths per 100,000 people.
In Polk County, the age-adjusted rate of pneumonia and flu per 100,000 is 16.4 for 2013, according to Healthy Tampa Bay, a website using Florida Department of Health (FDOH) statistics. Statewide there were 2,644 deaths in 2013, or an age-adjusted death rate of 9.7 per 100,000 people, FDOH statistics show. Hardee’s rate also is above 16.2. Moderate rates were reported in Osceola and Highlands counties.
Although there is no vaccination for Ebola, there are vaccinations for flu and pneumonia. “Annual influenza vaccination is strongly recommended for most people and it is estimated to be 80 percent effective in preventing death,” Dr. Lopez says. “Influenza is more dangerous to the very young, the elderly and people with chronic illnesses, such as emphysema, heart disease, and diabetes. Therefore, it is even more important that these groups of individuals receive annual influenza vaccination.”
CDC officials recommend two pneumococcal vaccines for people 65 and up. They suggest the pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13), then the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23), preferably six to 12 months later.
David Cennimo, an infectious disease and assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at Rutgers New Jersey Medical school, says people don’t take the flu as seriously as they should because it’s so common. “A lot of people think of the flu as a pretty mild illness, right up until they get it themselves, and then they see how severe it can be,” Cennimo said to Rutgers Today. “I have treated severe cases where patients have been in intensive care on a ventilator. In one case I remember from my medical training, the patient developed a severe secondary infection and died. The thing that struck me is people saying, ‘I don’t understand; it’s only the flu.’ When you see a severe case, as I have, you get a whole new respect for the illness.”
To avoid infectious disease, eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep, Dr. Lopez suggests. “Frequent hand washing and avoiding close contact with people who are ill are easy strategies for preventing the spread of many contagious diseases,” he adds.
Stay healthy by having an annual wellness check-in with your doctor to catch potential issues before they become major health problems. When you do cough or sneeze, cough or sneeze into your elbow or shoulder to avoid spreading germs.
story by CHERYL ROGERS and MATTHEW M. F. MILLER