We can all agree that the current Ebola outbreak is a very big deal; it's a public health crisis that has so far infected some 1,600 people and killed over 880 in West Africa, where it originated.
The outbreak is believed to have started in January, but American media coverage of Ebola exploded after two U.S. aid workers — doctor Kent Brantly and missionary Nancy Writebol — contracted the virus while working in Liberia. Dr. Brantly was flown by air ambulance to Atlanta’s Emory University on Saturday, while Writebol arrived there just this morning; both patients are being treated in special isolation units. Fear also blossomed following reports that a man who recently traveled from West Africa to New York City had possibly contracted the virus. He was tested yesterday at Mount Sinai Hospital, and later the same day the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene announced that the man is "unlikely" to have Ebola.
Thought to originate in bats (though scientists haven't been able to confirm this) and then spread to humans, the Ebola virus is transmitted only through direct contact with bodily secretions: vomit, blood, or feces. It is not airborne, unlike many other large-scale public health threats (such as SARS, meningitis, tuberculosis, and the old-fashioned flu). Ebola has no vaccine, no cure, and a very high mortality rate (up to 90% of those infected die; in the current outbreak, about 50% of infected people have died) — hence, the fear factor. Symptoms show up two to 21 days after infection and include fever, headache, diarrhea, and vomiting; ultimately, the virus decimates the body's stores of white blood cells and platelets, leading to internal bleeding that can prove fatal within a week after symptoms appear.
But, with the only two infected patients in the U.S. (who are in stable condition and said to be improving after receiving an experimental serum) currently quarantined in sealed facilities, the likelihood of an Ebola pandemic in this country is infinitesimal. Ebola is infectious, but not very contagious. While this particular strain is extremely virulent, the speed with which it has spread through West Africa is also due to factors not at play in the U.S. Neither Guinea, Liberia, nor Sierra Leone has ever dealt with this kind of outbreak; without precedent and with limited infrastructure and resources, healthcare providers and communities have had difficulty recognizing and treating infection. What's more, local cultural practices involving sickness care and burial have significantly raised people's risk of contact with the virus.
While those in the U.S. shouldn't be worrying about a Contagion or 28 Days scenario playing out at home, the news out of West Africa isn't good. Yesterday, Nigeria — Africa's most populous country — confirmed that a second case of the Ebola has appeared within its borders. The best precaution to take? Avoiding travel to the affected region.