The world got quite a scare recently with the Ebola outbreak in Africa. Ebola causes fever, sore throat, muscle pain, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea, internal and external bleeding and eventually death (with a death rate of around 50%). While it’s no longer headline news for the most part, the virus nevertheless is still an ongoing problem in Guinea and Sierra Leone. At this point, the devastating outbreak has caused over 11,313 deaths and will likely take many more before it is over.
The good news is that you’re very unlikely to be in any danger from Ebola yourself. Not only is the outbreak halfway across the world but it’s also not that easily transmitted.
Ebola normally spreads only through direct contact with body fluids. That means you would have to come into contact with the blood of an infected human or animal, or potentially with another bodily fluids such as semen or breast milk. The biggest risk for a traveler may well be the fruit bat, which is believed to be the normal carrier and able to spread the virus without being affected itself.
No case of airborne transmission of Ebola has ever been documented in library or natural conditions. However, some experts nevertheless state that airborne transmission shouldn’t be ‘ruled out’ and that it could be possible in some cases.
While recent studies and observations have failed to observe airborne transfer, one older study conducted 25 years ago did manage to demonstrate airborne transfer between monkeys. Likewise, a previous outbreak in 1995 may have spread in some rare cases via aerosol transmission.
There have also been a couple of incidents of distribution to military and health care providers where no direct body fluid exposure was documented. It’s possible as well that the virus may be evolving as it passes form host to another – even if it isn’t airborne, it may yet be.
Dr. C. J. Peters, who was a supervisor for the Reston outbreak and who helped to research the condition in the late 1980s, states that while there is no direct evidence for airborne transmission there just ‘[isn’t] the data to exclude it’ yet either. That is to say, that just because no case has been documented, that doesn’t mean it’s entirely impossible and there are a couple of reasons for us to suspect it’s possible.
This doesn’t mean you should panic. Even if Ebola is potentially transmitted in an airborne manner, this is clearly very rare to the point where it hasn’t been verified under laboratory conditions. What it does ram home however, is just how important it is to get the virus under control before it has a chance to become even more deadly.
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