Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about West Africa’s “Killer Virus”
The current Ebola crisis in West Africa has already become the worst outbreak in history, with more than 3,000 confirmed cases in Sierra Leone alone. Despite the combined efforts of the World Health Organisation, volunteer medical professionals and the governmental health workers in the affected nations, the outbreak shows no signs of slowing down, and every day the outbreak spreads further, infecting more people.
However, what threat does the virus pose to international travellers, and are the sensationalist newspaper headlines justified? A recent poll of travel customers showed that more than 60% of respondents were grossly misinformed about the virus, not understanding how it is spread and what the associated risks are. As well as this, the current outbreak is having an effect on the travel industry as a whole, with more than 40% of those surveyed saying that the threat of Ebola infection had made them hesitant to travel internationally, or travel by aeroplane.
We’ve taken the most commonly asked travellers’ questions and answered them with the latest information from verified medical resources.
Can I Catch Ebola on an Airplane?
In a sentence- It’s extraordinarily unlikely.
Let’s start by looking at how improbable it is that an infected person might find themselves on an international flight. The initial symptoms of Ebola are pretty consistent with a particularly bad case of the flu: sufferers will experience a high fever, intense muscular weakness, pain and cramps all over the body and chronic headaches. Navigating your way through a big, international airport is difficult enough when you’re at your healthiest, so it’s implausible to think that an Ebola sufferer would be able to physically board the plane, let alone get through the airport without anyone noticing how sick they are.
“But wait”, I imagine you yell, “according to the World Health Organisation, it can take up to 21 days for symptoms to start showing in infected persons”. Well, this is absolutely correct, but the actual risks have been blown out of all proportion by fear-exploiting headlines. Although an infected person can go up to 3 weeks without presenting symptoms, during this time they are not infectious. In other words, until an Ebola sufferer starts presenting symptoms of illness, they cannot infect anyone else.
However, let’s take the absolute worst case scenario and suppose that a person infected with Ebola has somehow made it on to your plane. What are the real risks to you and all the other passengers?
Fortunately, the risks are still quite low: Ebola is spread through the bodily fluids of the infected, including blood, sweat, semen, saliva, urine and vomit, so transmission can only occur when infected bodily fluids come into contact with broken skin or mucous membranes. So, unless you actually manage to ingest any infected bodily fluids, or somehow contract the virus from recently contaminated items such as used bed linen, unwashed utensils and syringes, you will be fine.
Unless an Ebola sufferer vomits in your eyes, the most likely route of transmission tends to be through oral contact with bodily fluids through eating with unwashed hands. To reduce your (already negligible) chances of catching Ebola, you should regularly wash your hands, especially before you eat. Although you should be doing this anyway, you absolute degenerate.
If I Catch Ebola, Will I Die?
Although prototypes are hurriedly being developed by a number of pharmaceutical companies, there is, to date, no cure for Ebola.
This is bad news, as some medical authorities have estimated the morality rate for Ebola to be as high as 90%. This means that 9/10 Ebola sufferers will die as a result of the virus.
However, it is worth remembering that this statistic is not representative of mortality rates when the sufferer is in Western medical care. Almost all of the confirmed cases of Ebola have happened in poor countries in West Africa, which do not have the medical resources needed to effectively treat Ebola sufferers. To make matters worse, most of the infected have been from small, remote villages which are hours, if not days, away from medical centres.
Therefore, the 90% morality rate statistic has been derived from people who have been treated at home by their families, or by health care professionals stretched to the limits, doing the best they can with the limited resources at their disposal.
As we have seen from the number of cases of Ebola sufferers being treated in Western countries, when doctors have the kind of advanced medical facilities we are blessed to have in developed countries, the chances of survival are substantially increased.
So, if you’re unlucky enough to fall ill to Ebola in a remote hut, with no access to any medical resources, you’re chances look pretty grim. However, even if you did become infected (which you won’t) your chances of survival are actually fairly high if you are treated in a developed country.
What Precautions Have International Airports and Travel Hubs Taken?
In terms of infectious potential, Ebola actually ranks quite low, compared to other recent disease scares. Because it can only be contracted through bodily fluids, transmission needs body-to-body contact, or contact with a recently contaminated environment or item.
So, because many international airports geared themselves up to contain SARS, an airborne disease which was highly infectious, they are well equipped to identify Ebola cases. For example, I recently passed through airports in both Hong Kong and Shanghai and they have heat monitoring technology which monitors every passenger for symptoms of Ebola.
In less hi-tech airports, staff are routinely drilled on how to identify sufferers and are extremely vigilant for any warning signs of infectious diseases.
Almost every day, the media breaks a new story of another suspected Ebola case outside of Africa, and although every single instance turned to be a common case of the flu, or something similar, the fact that people with the flu are being routinely quarantined just goes to show how seriously countries are taking the Ebola threat, and how vigilant they are being.
This international vigilance, combined with developed countries’ abilities to quickly and effectively quarantine Ebola sufferers, means that the outbreak is unlikely to spread to any country outside of West Africa.
So If The Risks are Low For The Rest of the World, Why Has Ebola Spread So Quickly in West Africa?
Ebola has spread so widely, so quickly, because of a deadly mix of inadequate medical resources, lack of education in the affected communities and a fear of Western medicine.
The areas affected are all located in poorer countries, which do not have the resources available to contain the Ebola infection. However, many of the infected never even receive any medical attention, because the outbreaks tend to occur in extremely remote villages, which don’t have any medical centres. To exacerbate the situation, the initial symptoms of Ebola infection are very non-specific, and include the onset of fever, muscle weakness, headaches and a sore throat. In order words, nothing more worrying than the case of the flu.
Because it can take between 2 to 21 days for infected people to present symptoms and become infectious, infected people can travel a long way, into previously unaffected areas, before they become ill and potentially infect new people.
However, the most crucial reasons why Ebola has spread quickly is down to the attitudes of the people in affected areas and a lack of education. If you’re reading this, it means you are lucky enough to have access to the internet, and you probably own a TV and radio as well. This means that you can easily and quickly educate yourself about Ebola, and understand the risks involved.
However, many of the people in affected areas do not have access to this kind of information, and therefore put themselves at risk unwittingly. This lack of facts leaves a vacuum which is often filled by misinformation, and many people in the affected region believe that the disease can be offset by special diets, potions and other folk cures. As a result of these beliefs, many people wrongly think that they will not be infected, and therefore are more likely to put themselves at risk of infection.
Because of the high mortality rates inside medical centres, the families of Ebola sufferers are extremely hesitant to put their loved ones into care, as they fear that they are more likely to die in care or blame Western medicine for Ebola deaths.
Most crucially, burial practises in the region involve a lot of body-to-body contact, which dramatically increase the chances of transmission.
So, Should Ebola Affect My Travel Plans?
Unless you are travelling to an area which is affected by the Ebola outbreak, it shouldn’t be a concern at all.
According to the World Health Organisation, even if you travel to West Africa, the actual chances of you becoming sick are still extremely low, due to the fact that you need to actually come into contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids.
In essence, travelling internationally puts you at no more risk of catching Ebola than sitting in a bar anywhere in the world.
Scott writes about travel, fitness and other stuff at My Voucher Codes. An avid traveller and conservationist, Scott has been all over the world, but having been born in Zimbabwe, Scott has always loved travelled around Africa.
Copyright © 2014 Scott Masson