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How is Ebola spread?

Ebola virus outbreak
Ebola virus outbreak
Photo by Handout/Getty Images

The current outbreak of Ebola is the worst in history and has claimed the lives of many individuals including healthcare workers who are trained to treat Ebola. Understandably the general public here in the USA is concerned about a possible Ebola outbreak because of the growing number of cases in West Africa. The concern that someone could travel to the USA when they are infected and not realize it until after they arrive is valid. It takes between 2 - 21 days to start showing symptoms of an Ebola infection, and in this time a person may travel to multiple countries. The good news is that even if an Ebola infected person enters the USA, in general the USA medical infrastructure is a lot better than those that are available to some of the areas currently affected in West Africa.

However, it's very important to know how Ebola is transmitted and how to potentially avoid spreading the disease if there is a scenario where someone who has recently traveled, whether or not they traveled directly from a West African country, starts to show signs and symptoms of an Ebola infection.

Firstly, it's important to note that Ebola is not transmitted via the air at this time. However, viruses can mutate to become airborne and more contagious. There is at least one strain of Ebola that can be transmitted between animal species other than humans via the airborne route, and is highly fatal in those animals, but not in humans.

In order to prevent spreading Ebola should a recent traveler suspect that he/she is infected contact with the the individual must be limited. Once the person reaches the acute stage where he/she may have a high fever and sweat profusely, diarrhea, vomiting, or hemorrhaging, the person is highly contagious. At this acute stage the virus may be transmitted in all of the following ways directly or by touching a surface where the following bodily fluids from an infected person is present:

  • Sweat
  • Blood
  • Semen (even up to 7 weeks after a male has recovered)
  • Kissing (i.e saliva)
  • Fecal matter
  • Urine
  • Vomit
  • From touching the dead body of an infected decedent

Therefore, if someone has symptoms of fever and is sweating profusely, coughing, spitting, diarrhea, vomiting, etc., and their bodily fluid is on some surface (i.e chair, toilet, tray table, subway hand rail) the virus can be transmitted.

If the person or someone nearby observes this signs and symptoms they should immediately call 911 and communicate this information to health officials who can then send First Responders equipped with proper personal protective equipment to the location of the sick person to safely transport them to the hospital isolation unit. Family members and those nearby should try to avoid touching the person or touching surfaces in which they have had contact, especially if there is any evidence of bodily fluid transfer in the immediate area.