Unprecedented Ebola Outbreak Happening Now: Could It Spread Here?

A field technician demonstrates protective gear in Zaire during the first Ebola outbreak in 1976.

This is the third post in my “Long-Term Disaster Diseases” series. See the rest here.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

A new outbreak of Ebola is going on in Africa, and Doctors Without Borders is calling it “an epidemic of a magnitude never seen before”—not because of the number of cases or deaths. There have been more in previous outbreaks. It’s because of how the disease is spreading.

In the past, Ebola has always stayed confined to a small region. This time the same strain of the virus has been found infecting people several hundred miles from the original area.

The questions on the minds of many people who don’t live in Africa are, what is Ebola? Could it come here? If so, how do I prevent it?

What is Ebola?

Ebola is that horrendous viral disease in Africa (so far). It’s the disease with a death rate of up to 90 percent of those infected. The one where the victims sometimes bleed out of every orifice before they die.

But other than for humanitarian reasons or if we’re going to Africa, should we be concerned?

Well, for one thing, Ebola is on the U.S. list for potential bioterror agents. That’s because it’s highly contagious and there’s no vaccine or effective treatment. Also, though this is rare, people have traveled internationally with it before their symptoms started—including to the United States.

Why Has the Current Outbreak Spread So Far?

Ebola outbreaks usually seem destined to spread, but then they go away. That’s because victims don’t travel. They’re gravely ill and quickly bedridden. Before the virus has time to spread out of the region, health care workers step in. Everyone becomes more careful with hygiene and animal meat, and the outbreak goes away, at least in humans.

The reason Doctors Without Borders calls the current outbreak unprecedented is it’s been seen in areas several hundred miles from each other. Experts suppose this is because people simply have traveled in for funerals, been exposed by helping with the body, and traveled back home before symptoms developed.

Hopefully it’s not because the virus has found a new way to spread (such as in airborne droplets). Time will tell.

Got your interest yet?

As of this writing, there has been no person-to-person spread in the U.S., at least that I know of. But it’s possible. So Ebola is one of those diseases to keep in the back of your mind because if there ever is an outbreak that puts you at risk, you can significantly decrease your risk of getting it if you know what to do.

What Could Cause an Ebola Epidemic on Other Continents?

When travelers have come down with Ebola after flying out of Africa it hasn’t spread to other people because the victims have become so sick so fast that they’ve ended up in the hospital, where strict precautions were kept. Also, the animals outside of Africa don’t carry it.

And Ebola is probably unlikely to be used as a terrorist weapon unless someone can find a way to spread it via air droplets. (So far, we don’t believe the virus spreads through the air.)

But what if we had a disaster of such magnitude that our hospital system broke down? Then we might have a problem, from travelers or terrorists. Caring for the gravely ill outside of a hospital setting would make Ebola much more likely to spread.

>> Next page: 7 important things to know if Ebola breaks out near you


Photo: CDC/ Dr. Lyle Conrad.