It's happened: The first case of Ebola to be diagnosed in the U.S. was confirmed yesterday. But, that doesn't mean you should be freaking out about it. Lawrence Stanberry, MD, PhD, a virologist at Columbia University, tells us how Ebola stacks up compared to other viruses we are much more likely to have to deal with.
One virus you will almost certainly come into contact with in the coming months is this year's influenza variety, that nasty seasonal flu. Dr. Stanberry explains that once you've got the flu, you can be spreading the virus for 24 hours before you even feel sick.
Norovirus, the most common cause of stomach flu in the U.S., also spreads pretty darn quickly. In a recent study, researchers found that a bacteriophage norovirus stand-in spread to 60% of measured surfaces within only four hours. Norovirus is also no(ro)torious for spreading on cruise ships, but the CDC warns that restaurants are also great places to catch this one. Symptoms of norovirus usually develop within 48 hours of infection, during which time most people are not contagious. However, sometimes they are. People can also continue shedding the virus for more than two weeks after recovering, and we don't know if they're still contagious during that time.
And, let's not forget the common cold, usually caused by rhinoviruses. These are most often spread through airborne particles in your sneezes, or by touching a contaminated surface before rubbing your eyes or nose. And, just like with the flu, someone with a cold can be contagious for about a day before symptoms appear. Enteroviruses are also similar to rhinoviruses, says Dr. Stanberry, and we're in the middle of a pretty bad outbreak of enterovirus 68 right now.
Compared to these other diseases, Ebola is actually not that contagious. It will only spread by direct contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is already experiencing symptoms. And, when Ebola symptoms hit, they hit hard and fast. So, Dr. Stanberry says it's unlikely that someone with Ebola would be going to work sick like he or she might with a cold.
But, Dr. Stanberry says one virus we might actually want to worry a little more about is measles. He says measles is extremely contagious, and we currently don't have a cure for it. Although we do have a vaccine that protects against it, an increasing number of people are choosing not to vaccinate their children, which puts us at risk for a serious outbreak. But, we should note that most people who contract measles do survive the infection and symptoms usually improve within 10 days.
The good news is that most of these viruses (even Ebola) can be inactivated by the alcohol in hand sanitizers. So, what's Dr. Stanberry's advice? "Practice good hand hygiene and don't put your finger where it doesn’t belong," he says. Will do.