The World Health Organization has declared the outbreak in West Africa an international emergency, killing more than 900 people and spreading.
That’s scary and serious. But it also cries out for context.
The outbreak began in Guinea in March before spreading to neighboring Sierra Leone and Liberia. A traveler recently carried it farther, to Nigeria, leading to a few cases in the giant city of Lagos.
Ebola emerged in 1976. It has been confirmed in 10 African nations, but never before in the region of West Africa.
Lack of experience with the disease there has contributed to its spread. So has a shortage of medical personnel and supplies, widespread poverty, and political instability.
Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, predicts that within a few weeks, Ebola will sicken more people than all previous occurrences combined. Already more than 1,700 cases have been reported.
Global health officials say it will take months to fully contain the outbreak, even if all goes as well as can be hoped.
THE REASONS TO FEAR
There is no cure for Ebola hemorrhagic fever.
More than half of people infected in this outbreak have died. Death rates in some past outbreaks reached 90 percent.
It’s a cruel end that comes within days. Patients grow feverish and weak, suffering through body aches, vomiting, diarrhea and internal bleeding, sometimes bleeding from the nose and ears.
The damage can spiral far beyond the patients themselves.
Because it’s spread through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick patients, Ebola takes an especially harsh toll on doctors and nurses, already in short supply in areas of Africa hit by the disease.
Outbreaks spark fear and panic.
Health workers and clinics have come under attack from residents, who sometimes blame foreign doctors for the deaths. People with from Ebola or other illnesses may fear going to a hospital, or may be shunned by friends and neighbors.
Two of the worst-hit countries — Liberia and Sierra Leone — sent troops to quarantine areas with Ebola cases. The aim was to stop the disease’s spread but the action also created hardship for many residents.
THE REASONS NOT TO FEAR
—Ebola doesn’t spread easily, the way a cold virus or the flu does. It is only spread by direct contact with bodily fluids such as blood, saliva, sweat and urine. Family members have contracted it by caring for their relatives or handling an infected body as part of burial practices. People aren’t contagious until they show symptoms, Frieden said. Symptoms may not appear until 21 days after exposure.
“People should not be afraid of casual exposure on a subway or an airplane,” said Dr. Robert Black, professor of international health at Johns Hopkins University.
—Health officials around the developed world know how to stop Ebola. Frieden described tried-and-true measures: find and isolate all possible patients, track down people they may have exposed, and ensure strict infection-control procedures while caring for patients. Every past outbreak of Ebola has been brought under control.
The CDC is sending at least 50 staff members to West Africa to help fight the disease, while more than 200 work on the problem from the agency’s headquarters in Atlanta. The WHO is urging nations worldwide to send money and resources to help.
—It’s true that Ebola could be carried into the United States by a traveler, possibly putting family members or health care workers at risk. It’s never happened before. But if the disease does show up in the U.S., Frieden said, doctors and hospitals know how to contain it quickly.
“We are confident that a large Ebola outbreak in the United States will not occur,” Frieden told a congressional hearing Thursday.