West Africa is in a bad way. For the last few months, the number of cases of Ebola have been spiraling upwards with a greater than 50 percent mortality rate. As you would expect in an age of global travel, cases have trickled out of Africa to other countries including Spain and the US.
As of this writing, a man traveling from Liberia to Dallas, Texas has died, and two of his nurses have become infected, one of which possibly transmitted the disease to airplane passengers. Many are under isolation or observation, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are scrambling to get Ebola in the US stamped out swiftly — states around the US are preparing for cases, an “Ebola Czar” has been appointed, and specialized CDC teams are on the ready.
But for whatever reason, this most recent outbreak of Ebola has created more panic than SARS, “swine flu,” or the yearly influenza, bringing conspiracy theories, bogus cures, and bad advice along with it. Here is everything Ebola isn’t:
There is no cure for Ebola, especially not sold online
If there is a health problem, there is probably someone on the Internet selling a cure for it. Taking advantage of fear, charlatans sell crystals for cancer, bleach for Crohn’s Disease, and now “cures” for Ebola. While scientists around the world are rushing to get a vaccine developed and testing out experimental medicines like ZMapp, there is currently no effective treatment for Ebola. What we do have are are protocols to contain and control outbreaks of infectious diseases.
It sounds counter-intuitive, but fast-tracking a legitimate Ebola vaccine probably won’t help control this outbreak any faster than immediate containment will. If it sounds too good to be true, it is.
Ebola is not the zombie apocalypse
It has to be said: Ebola is not the start of The Walking Dead. Ebola is only spread through intimate contact with bodily fluids from an infected person showing symptoms. Any virus that has the ability to rapidly spread across the planet would likely have to be airborne, which Ebola is not, nor is it likely to mutate into an airborne virus.
Ebola does not change your behavior or turn you into a shambling ghoul. In fact, it’s not even the virus that kills you. Ebola tricks your immune system into a kamikaze attack to wipe all all invaders, and the resulting collateral damage from that onslaught is what does you in (destroyed blood vessels produce the tell-tale bleeding symptoms).
Ebola isn’t even great at spreading itself, as you would expect a zombie virus to be (i.e., getting you to bite other people). Because Ebola transmission is through intimate contact with bodily fluids, it will never transfer as quickly as the flu, for example, which can infect a whole room with your sneeze.
Ebola is not a hoax or conspiracy
Once the government gets involved, the conspiracy theories start flying. So far, theories about Ebola as a form of population control or a way to increase “Big Pharma” vaccine profits have taken the lead (not linking for traffic). But think about those theories for a few moments and everything breaks down.
First, vaccines are a terrible way to make money. One of the cheapest and most radical advancements in modern medicine, vaccines don’t really make companies money, which is why so few produce them. As a business model, a yearly or once-in-a-lifetime purchase isn’t exactly a cash cow. If the government really did want to spur Big Pharma profits, they’d give everyone high blood pressure.
Second, as a form of population control, Ebola would be a pretty shoddy controller (no matter what Chris Brown thinks). It doesn’t transmit itself very well (or quickly) person to person, and though the mortality rate for an Ebola infection is frighteningly high — as high as 90% in past outbreaks — the relatively few number of cases means that the effect on an entire population isn’t nearly as bad as other viruses.
Consider the fact that Dengue fever, for example, can affect up to 400 million people each year, and kills 25,000 or more. For all the panic associated with Ebola, the current deaths are less than 5,000. That’s not a trivial number, but it’s also not world population control.
Oh, and #ClipboardMan — the man supposedly proving that the government doesn’t know how to handle Ebola — was doing exactly what his important job was.
Ebola in the US is not Contagion or Outbreak
Hollywood has primed us to be terrified of any new infectious disease. Movies show an incredibly deadly virus spreading quickly across the entire world. But so far, we haven’t had to contend with any virus or other pathogen that has been both highly transmissible and deadly. If Ebola retained its mortality rate and spread like influenza, for example, we would really be in trouble.
There is a difference between infectious and contagious as well. Ebola is highly infectious — one to ten viral particles can give you the disease. As a comparison, it takes thousands of Streptococcus bacteria to reliably induce an infection. But Ebola is not very contagious (as compared to other viruses), as the great infographic from NPR shows below:
And although viruses are evolving every time they find a new host to hijack, it’s very unlikely that Ebola is going to evolve the ability to go global. As Carl Zimmer says in the New York Times, worrying about Ebola evolving to spread like a Hollywood virus is like worrying that wolves will evolve wings.
Ebola is not the virus you should be worrying about
You don’t need to know how to don a HAZMAT suit or how to quarantine yourself, you need to get your shots. The flu killed 50,000 people in the U.S. in 2010 and HPV, another virus preventable with a vaccine, kills 4,000-6,000 every year. Even in Africa, pathogens like malaria and Dengue fever affect millions of people each year. Ebola is not the virus that is going to end the world — this disease is stoppable.
Still worried, follow Vox‘s flowchart:
Remember, hysteria is contagious too.
For more information about Ebola in the US, check out This Isn’t CONTAGION or OUTBREAK: What You Need To Know About Ebola In The U.S.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.
IMAGE: Colorized transmission electron micrograph of an Ebola virus virion. Photo credit: Frederick A. Murphy