Look, I’m not about the fearmongering. This is not your great-aunt getting you on the phone to say stay inside or find the nearest bomb shelter because Ebola is coming to Florida State. But to write the outbreaks in Liberia and Sierra Leone off as anything other than alarming is to put the health of the globe in grave danger.
Fast facts: Ebola is extremely infectious but not very contagious. You might have heard that Ebola is less contagious that chickenpox, or the flu, which is true because it’s not transmitted through the air. But a ridiculously tiny amount can make you sick, because its infection rate is off the charts. Around 70% of people infected with Ebola die. In order to keep this below epidemic proportions, there needs to be less than a 1 to 1 infection rate—one infected person infects less than one other person. A 2.5 infection rate is an uncontrollable epidemic. In Liberia, the rate is between 1.75 and 2.5, nearly unstoppable. As of today, there is no cure.
What does this mean for the US? Probably nothing, as long as we can stop the epidemic in Africa, but if we can’t get the situation under control there could be 1.4 million cases of Ebola by January. Here in America, we have the resources to manage cases. We have measures in place to track down all the people a Patient Zero came in contact with, starting with family members (remember, most cases of Ebola are spread through touch) and radiating outwards to hospital workers and store clerks. We have the manpower to do extensive sweeps, and we have hospitals that are reporting any Ebola-like symptoms promptly to the CDC.
But just because your neighbors aren’t the ones dying doesn’t mean that you can laugh about Ebola, because right now someone’s neighbors are dying, and will continue to die in droves. The problem in heavy-hit regions of Africa like Liberia is that most people are trying to ride out the sickness at home, where they will infect every member of their family, who will go on to infect nearby families, and so on. Even in hospitals, though, the infection can be contained the fatality rate still remains at a disturbing 65%. Treatment centers set up as a stop-gap by the World Heath Organization are overwhelmed, and responders are trying to find other ways to isolate the sick in places where they can receive food and care.
In nations like Liberia, which don’t have the same resources and medical care as the US, an outbreak like this can literally topple governments. Already, the economy and health care structures in place in Liberia are collapsing. After the civil war that killed 150,000 people and ended only in 2003, there was only 1 doctor for every 100,000 residents before the Ebola outbreak. Compare this to the US, where there’s 1 doctor for every 240 people. Now, because so many people getting sick are healthcare workers, hospitals are closing down before seeing even one case of Ebola and previously treatable disorders like diarrhea and the flu are becoming death sentences along with Ebola. And, the way things are going, Liberia’s economy could plummet from a 6% growth rate to a negative 4% rate.
So no, we don’t have much to worry about here—yet—but much of America’s prevention system depends on self-reporting of symptoms and getting yourself to a hospital. If even one person decides to try to tough the illness out at home, it might get difficult to contain an outbreak, especially if multiple cases crop up at once.
For now, there is no vaccine to rush out and get. The most important thing to do is familiarize yourself with Ebola symptoms (which, unhelpfully, look a lot like the flu) and try not to freak out. You probably won’t get Ebola anytime soon. If you want to do more, here’s a list of a bunch of organizations that are in desperate need of donations. Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, and just about every other health organization out there, are sending people to Africa to try to contain this outbreak on the front line. If you can donate, pick your favorite charity. Even if you can’t, spreading awareness and accurate information about Ebola—and not treating it like the punch line in some joke—will go a long way in the coming months.
by KATIE AVAGLIANO / managing editor