In the wee hours of the morning, the World Health Organization officially declared that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” Sounds pretty scary, right? So does that mean Americans should be hiding under their beds so the Ebola virus doesn’t get us? The short answer is: Definitely not.
The announcement basically reinforces what public health officials knew all along: That the outbreak is serious; that there’s a danger that it’ll spread to neighboring African countries; and that it’s going to take a concerted international effort to stop the disease in its tracks.
The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is bad—the worst the world has ever seen—with 1,779 cases of infection so far, including 961 deaths. Those cases have occurred in four countries: Guinea, Liberia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone. Though there’s a threat that it could spread into neighboring countries, the disease poses little threat of becoming a global epidemic. Here’s why Americans shouldn’t be afraid:
- Ebola spreads through physical contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. It doesn’t have the pandemic potential of airborne diseases like the flu, where one person’s sneeze can infect a boatload of people. As long as you don’t touch the blood, sweat or saliva of someone who has Ebola, you’re going to be fine.
- Airports are on the lookout for sick people, to stop Ebola patients from traveling to and entering other countries.
- Even if Ebola did sneak into America, it wouldn’t lead to a major outbreak, because doctors and epidemiologists have the resources to stop it. Since it spreads through physical contact, doctors can put infected patients in isolation wards, and as long as the doctors wear gloves, protective suits and surgical masks, no one else gets infected.
- In Africa, fears about Western medicine are causing people to turn to witch doctors for a cure. This means that instead of reporting to medical centers, infected people are crossing borders and spreading the disease. Since Americans are accustomed to relying on Western medicine, that seems unlikely to happen if Ebola were to cross overseas.
Although there is little risk of Ebola spreading on a global scale, that doesn’t mean the rest of the world shouldn’t help. The U.S.’s Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that it has more than 30 experts on the ground in Africa, and 50 more on the way, to help track down Ebola cases and improve response.
For more information on Ebola, visit the CDC’s Question and Answer page about the virus.