How Contagious Is Ebola?

Don't go watch this. It's not that bad yet.
Don't go watch this. It's not that bad yet.

It's been odd to watch the folks up in Dallas handle being ground zero for the first Ebola case in the United States. Ebola is a nasty, frightening disease, but Dallas and state officials have been cucumber-cool about the whole thing. First, they had a patient, Thomas Eric Duncan, who recently arrived from Liberia with the disease, but everything was under control. Then they had a patient with the disease who had been turned away from Texas Presbyterian Hospital on September 25 because somehow the information was not relayed that the man had just arrived from Liberia. (Authorities have been telling everyone for two days that Duncan came in on September 26, but they somehow got that wrong and have yet to explain how the mistake happened.) Then he had only been in contact with a few people. But of course it turned out there were about 100 "potential or possible contacts," according to a release from the Department of State Health Services.

So why isn't everyone completely panicking now?

Well that's because we've all been reassured that Ebola, while a daunting disease that has killed about 70 percent of those infected in West Africa since the beginning of this outbreak, is only passed along through human secretion and excretion -- blood, mucous, semen, feces, vomit or urine, specifically. Basically, someone needs to throw up on you and then you need to make sure that the vomit gets in your eyes or your mouth or an open cut or something like that.

Ebola doesn't have a high reproduction number, meaning the average number of people who catch the disease from a sick person during an outbreak is relatively low, with two people getting infected for each sick person, as NPR explained. Measles, by comparison, infects about 18 people for every sick person.

Of course, if two people caught the disease and gave it to four more, the rate of infection would start to look a lot more impressive, or, you know, terrifying. But if everyone who came into contact or potential contact with the first patient is contacted quarantined and watched to make sure they stay away from people and don't develop symptoms, then the potential for all this to snowball decreases rapidly.

It looks like officials are also counting on the superior sanitation in the United States, which is very different from the setup in much of West Africa. All of that means the disease won't have as easy a time spreading here as it would there. Disinfecting is key, since you can still pick up Ebola from a person with the disease or objects that have been contaminated with any of the aforementioned bodily fluids, hence why even though the kids attending Dallas schools haven't shown any symptoms of the disease, the schools were still shut down and thoroughly cleaned on Wednesday.

However, it's worth noting that this very sunny view of things changes significantly when we learn from the New York Times that the infected apartment where the man had been staying continues to be infected because officials have had trouble finding medical workers willing to go in and clean the place. Meanwhile the people he was staying with are forced, in a very legal-ish way, to remain in the disease-contaminated residence, complete with the diarrhea- and sweat-soiled sheets and things he was using before the hospital finally noticed he was from Liberia and might just possibly have Ebola.

We're guessing that's probably not the ideal way to "contain" Ebola.

Around Houston, things are still supposedly pretty calm. Harris Health System hasn't seen an uptick of patients coming into emergency rooms convinced they have Ebola, Harris Health spokesman John Martinez says. "The symptoms mimic a lot of other diseases so the main thing is to ask the right questions," he says. Namely, have you recently been to West Africa or do you know anyone that has. If you answer yes to either of these questions and have a fever, fatigue, headache, muscle pain or a sore throat (the initial symptoms, according to the World Health Organization) then you'd best get to a hospital, and try not to share your bodily fluids with anyone along the way.


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