Over the past few days, I’ve noticed a number of posts on Geek websites and social media, expressing fears that going to the fan convention DragonCon in Atlanta will result in a risk of exposure to the Ebola virus. These concerns stem from the transport of two Ebola patients from Africa to a special isolation facility at Emory University Hospital. Since there was a time in my life where I became a bit obsessed with this disease and read everything about it that I could get my hands on, I figured it might be helpful to assuage some fears if I made an Ebola Primer.
Q: What is Ebola?
A: Ebola is a hemorrhagic fever found in Africa. In early stages, Ebola symptoms look a lot like influenza symptoms. Late stages of the disease can include organ failure and/or bleeding.
Q: How do you get Ebola?
A: The Ebola virus that is causing the current epidemic in Africa is the Zaire strain. A person contracts this type of Ebola when he is exposed to the body fluids of someone with the disease. You can also contract Ebola if you come into contact with the body fluids of an infected primate (monkeys) or some species of bats (in Africa; the bats in your backyard are not a risk; please do not harm the bats in your yard). Unlike viruses like influenza, Ebola is not an airborne disease. You have to touch an infected person’s blood or other bodily fluids to become infected.
Q: If Ebola is not airborne, why are so many people in Africa contracting Ebola?
A: There are several reasons. In Africa, when people get sick, they typically don’t go to a doctor. Instead, their families take care of them. If the sick person has Ebola, the family members who are taking care of him are exposed to his blood and bodily fluids, and often contract the disease themselves. Many people who live in the region of Africa where the current epidemic is occurring also have certain burial and funeral rites that require them to wash the body of the deceased. If the deceased died from Ebola, washing the body would bring the washers into contact with the victim’s infected blood. Although doctors have tried to explain why these activities are dangerous, doctors are not always understood or trusted in these regions. Additionally, the sanitary conditions of the countries in Africa where the epidemic is occurring are not on the same level as those found in first world countries, which also leads to higher risks of infection.
Q: If doctors in Africa contracted Ebola from treating Ebola patients, won’t the doctors at Emory face the same risks?
A: No. The African countries involved are poor countries. They often do not have the funds for or access to treatment and safety devices found in the hospitals of wealthier countries. From the pictures of the current clinics that are being circulated in the news media, it appears that the clinics do not have the proper equipment for safely treating Ebola patients.
In first world countries, doctors and scientists use special safety suits when interacting with very deadly diseases (i.e., biosafety level 4 diseases). These suits look a lot like space suits. Here is a picture:
Because of how the suits are designed, the diseases cannot get into the suits. In addition to using these suits, doctors and scientists interacting with Ebola are subjected to a series of decontamination procedures after leaving the room with Ebola. These procedures include things like safety showers and/or treatment with certain wavelengths of ultraviolet light that kill viruses. This keeps the disease from exiting the isolation rooms when the doctor leaves.
The isolation rooms themselves are set up so that only certain people with special clearances can get in. The people who go in will have to wear the special suits discussed above. The rooms are designed so that air can flow into the room, but not back out. The rooms that the two Ebola patients will be staying in were actually specially designed in case scientists at the Center for Disease Control (“CDC”) accidentally came into contact with a dangerous disease they were studying and needed medical treatment. This is the exact sort of thing the hospital is equipped to handle safely. Ebola is not going to get out of the isolation rooms at Emory.
Q: Is there a risk that Ebola could get out during transport of the two Ebola patients from Africa?
A: No. The Ebola patients are arriving via special planes that are designed to prevent diseases from escaping. They will be put into special suits during the time they are not in the hospital so that Ebola cannot leave the suit. Ebola is not going to get out. And again, you have to come into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids to contract Ebola.
Q: How can you be sure this stuff is going to work? Ebola has never been in America before.
A: Actually, Ebola has been studied in America for many years, to include studies using non-human primates (monkeys). Those laboratories are set up similar to the isolation rooms at Emory. Ebola does not get out. There is also the Reston virus, which is a type of Ebola that only infects monkeys and was discovered in a monkey house in Reston, Virginia.
Q: Why should I believe you over Donald Trump?
A: I have an advanced degree in biological chemistry. Donald Trump builds vacation resorts.
Q: So you’re saying I won’t get Ebola at DragonCon?
A: You will not get Ebola at DragonCon.
Q: Why are some people saying that we will all get Ebola and die?
A: There’s a lot of misinformation floating around on the Internet. There is also human nature – when we don’t know about something but it sounds scary, we tend to become frightened and react. The best way to address these sorts of things is with knowledge. When you know the facts about something, it becomes a lot less scary.
Q: Where can I learn more about Ebola?
A: Here are some useful links to get you started:
The CDC’s webpage on Ebola is here and their FAQs are here.
Here are the Wikipedia pages on Ebola generally and the Zaire strain.
The non-fiction thriller “The Hot Zone” is about the Reston monkey house events. It’s a bit sensationalized, but it’s a good read and what originally got me interested in learning more about the Ebola virus.
Here is a blog post from a researcher who specializes in studying deadly diseases about why there is no reason to be scared out about Ebola patients being transferred to a secure hospital in the United States.