Thursday, October 9, 2014

INFORMATIVE: The Ebola Epidemic

I've had a lot of thoughts regarding the 2014 outbreak of Ebola in West Africa, but until now haven't wanted to write an article about it. However, as time has gone on, that has changed. The more I read about it the more I realise that people aren't getting the right picture of the ramifications of this outbreak, mostly due to the hype created by bad media and the prominence of the 'Chinese whisper' effect of social media. So I thought I'd do up this quick article to address the outbreak in the greater scheme of things and help set the record straight on some key issues:

Will Ebola Spread?

Experts at the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) and WHO (World Health Organisation) are predicting that if this outbreak isn't properly contained - and soon - the number of deaths could rise to 1.4 million as soon as January. However, those deaths can largely be expected to reside predominantly in the high population density areas of West Africa where the outbreak is at its peak. The risk of it spreading in a large scale - as seen in West Africa - somewhere such as Europe, North America or Australia, is negligable.

Is Ebola Easy to Catch?

Yes and no. Yes, if you are working with Ebola sufferers. No if you're not. Yes if you're living in an area with poor hygeine standards and crowded living arrangements. No if you have access to clean water, cleaning products and have a whole house to yourself.

The fact is, the disease has spread so rapidly in West Africa because of very poor standards of living combined with overpopulation, as well as relatively low general standard of education - particularly when it comes to medical training - and people are helping family members who have fallen ill which puts them into contact with them.

One key thing to remember is that Ebola can only be spread by those currently displaying symptoms. The disease has a gestation period of up to 21 days, so if someone were to catch it, they wouldn't realise it for up to three weeks. However, during that time, they aren't infectious. Much ado is made about people travelling on aeroplanes and spreading the illness to fellow passengers, but unless the patient was actively vomiting and bleeding from the eyes they wouldn't be able to spread it to other people on the aeroplane - and if that were the case I doubt they'd be well enough to get to an airport let alone be allowed on the flight at all.

So what can lead to you contracting Ebola?
  • Interacting with the corpse of someone who died of the disease
  • Exchanging bodily fluids with someone who has the disease, such as sweat and saliva
  • Prolonged exposure to infected surfaces contaminated by those with the disease
  • Prolonged, close-proximity living with those with the disease
  • Interaction with animals carrying the disease, such as bats
As you can probably tell from the above list, the odds of you picking the illness up in suburban Sydney are slim to none. Cases such as the recent death in Dallas, Texas were caused by the above list. In the case of the American Thomas Eric Duncan, he had physically interacted with a woman sick with the disease, carrying her to a taxi to take her to a hospital, wearing no protective gear in a very hot, humid environment. Sweat touching sweat was enough for it to transfer to him and that was that.

Is Ebola Airborne?

 Yes and no. Yes, it is airborne (as confirmed by the CDC) overy extremely short distances in very specific circumstances, but no it is not airborne in the traditional sense of something such as influenza. If it was that airborne, the casualty count would have been half the world's population within 30 days of the outbreak.
How does it work? Simply speaking, when an infected patient does something like a sneeze, it sprays tiny fluid particles of saliva into the air for a short distance, and they hang there. The Ebola virus doesn't do well in temperatures below 13 degrees, however, and a small, airborne droplet cools fairly quickly, so the droplets become benign quite fast. However, if someone were to walk through a cloud of these particles while they are still fresh and they got into their eyes and lungs, they could - theoretically - contract the illness, however unlikely. The odds of it being transmitted this way are quite small, however, as the tissue membranes in the airways don't transfer bacteria and viruses as well as other parts of the body, and so have a much lesser chance of being a pathway for disease contraction.

Once again it comes down to extended proximity to those suffering the illness. If you're an aid worker who will be around sufferers day in, day out, then yes, your odds of contracting the illness from these airborne particles will climb significantly, but for an average person living outside of West Africa, there's nothing to worry about at this time.

What About the Ebola Zombie Rumours?

This one is so ridiculous I'm going to be rather brief about it. Dying of Ebola is not a fast, clean way to go. You die incredibly slowly, painfully and exhaustingly, getting weaker and weaker until you can barely move. You simply lie there, bleeding internally. That much internal bleeding coupled with exhaustion is enough to lower your heart rate considerably to the point where a cursory check of your vitals will seem like you are dead. Aid workers in West Africa have their hands full and don't have time to do extensive checks on patients. When they see a body in the street they give it a quick check and then deal with it so they can move on to the next patient. It only makes sense that occasionally they'd miss a very faint pulse and the patient would start moving in the body bag during a brief moment of lucidity. There is no zombie apocalypse coming.

What Can I Do to Minimize Risk?

Ebola is spreading internationally, to an extent. For it to spread rapidly it needs poor sanitation, hot, humid environments and crowded places. Virtually every first-world city has proper sewage, running water, cleaning products and showers. Unless you are reading this from a mud hut in West Africa you already have a minimized risk of contracting the illness.
However, being over-prepared never hurts. If you want to prepare yourself further for an outbreak - even if it's just for your own sanity - then stock up on the following things:
  • Surgical masks
  • Rubber gloves
  • N95 masks, such as the ReadiMask
  • Protective eyewear
  • Bleach (bleach solutions have been proven to totally eliminate the disease from surfaces)
  • Ethanol-based sanitizer, such as Dettol concentrate
  • Plastic drop-sheets
  • Electrical tape (for sealing shut windows and doors from the outside)
  • Garbage bags for contaminated material disposal
Stocking up on the above is overkill, however, it can be multi-purposed for ANY pandemic, such as a mutated influenza virus like H1N1 or MERS.

So hopefully this insight has cleared up any questions you've had about the illness that you haven't been able to get a straight answer on. If you have any further questions about the illness then please feel free to ask in the comments below and we'll get back to you as soon as possible.

And remember, be prepared, not scared.

- CumQuaT

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