Ebola Travel Risk – Sorting Fact From Fiction

12 Jul,2018 By Jagabond

Ebola is the new scary word. Images of gushing blood and doctors in hooded plastic suits fill your mind. The word has infected North American pop culture and journalists darken their tone when speaking of it. Is this all just hype?

Yes and no. Ebola causes severe illness, but any doomsday scenarios sparking global panic are over the top. I write this as Ebola is back in the news. A current outbreak in Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has international health experts anxious. As they work to isolate and contain the outbreak, air travel has put other countries at risk. A list of the ten most vulnerable airports named two in Europe – Brussels and Paris.

So should you cancel your France trip for fear of spiking a fever while touring the Eiffel Tower? No. Let’s talk about Ebola, and get real about this disease.


Ebola – a brief history

The disease first emerged in 1976, with concurrent yet unrelated outbreaks in Zaire (the nation now known as DRC) and Sudan. It struck rural villages with limited road access, so this acted as a natural quarantine against further spread. There was little press coverage at the time, even with mortality rates reaching upwards of 90%.

Ebola then disappeared for nearly two decades. There were major developments in 1995, with two books published about the 1976 outbreaks. One of these books, ‘The Coming Plague’ by Laurie Garrett, inspired me to pursue a career in epidemiology. Thank you, Ms. Garrett!

ebola travel risk - facts and fiction

That same year Hollywood released a movie entitled ‘Outbreak’ starring Dustin Hoffman that was based on Ebola. In a tragic coincidence, the disease emerged from its hiatus, causing another outbreak in Zaire. The media jumped on this, citing it as an example of life imitating art. Ebola was disastrous to the affected villages, but again didn’t spread beyond that.

For years it caused scattered outbreaks mostly in DRC and Uganda. The game-changing event occurred in 2014. Ebola struck West Africa and spread into the cities, causing over 25,000 cases in easily the largest outbreak in history. The international response was massive, with a multitude of relief organizations joining in the fight. There were even cases in the U.S. and Spain, though no sustained transmission. Airports initiated travel restrictions, and the media frenzy lasted for months.


Ebola – disease characteristics

Ebola is spread by a virus, pictured below. Some say it looks like a question mark.

ebola travel risk - facts and fiction

The disease starts with generic symptoms – diarrhea, vomiting, fever, fatigue, etc. It progresses quickly and damages the organs. Bleeding does occur in some cases, though not as frequently as many believe. There is no approved treatment for Ebola, though in the current DRC outbreak an experimental drug and vaccine are being used.

How do you get Ebola? There are many misconceptions about this. The virus requires direct contact with body fluids for transmission to occur. This makes it difficult to catch. There is no spread through coughs and sneezes like you see with the flu. Mosquitoes or other insects cannot transmit the virus.


Ebola – high risk populations

In all Ebola outbreaks, two groups are always at highest risk. First, those working in the healthcare field or family members caring for the sick. This leads to direct and constant exposure. In the developing world, many hospitals cannot practice proper infection control, which further puts nurses and doctors at risk. The other group are those participating in traditional burial practices, which can lead to skin contact with infected fluids and tissues.


Ebola – the bottom line on travel risk

If you’re not in one of the high risk populations, your chances of contracting Ebola are very low. Even if an Ebola patient appeared in Paris, Brussels or some other European city, spread beyond that one case is unlikely. Outside of 2014, Ebola has ravaged rural and isolated villages in Africa. The global health community should absolutely work to ensure these tragic outbreaks are prevented. However, for most travelers there is an extremely minimal risk. That said, there are other nasty bugs out there, so always consult your provider if you get sick after travel.


For more information on Ebola

The internet is home to many inaccurate descriptions of Ebola and other diseases. Visit these following websites for the most valid info:

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