What is Ebola and Why Should We Care?

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Unprecedented Ebola Outbreak. Could It Spread Here?

Unprecedented Ebola Outbreak Happening Now: Could It Spread Here?

A field technician demonstrates protective gear in Zaire during the first Ebola outbreak in 1976.

This is the third post in my “Long-Term Disaster Diseases” series. See the rest here.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

A new outbreak of Ebola is going on in Africa, and Doctors Without Borders is calling it “an epidemic of a magnitude never seen before”—not because of the number of cases or deaths. There have been more in previous outbreaks. It’s because of how the disease is spreading.

In the past, Ebola has always stayed confined to a small region. This time the same strain of the virus has been found infecting people several hundred miles from the original area.

The questions on the minds of many people who don’t live in Africa are, could it come here? If so, how do I prevent it?

What is Ebola?

Ebola is that horrendous viral disease in Africa (so far). It’s the disease with a death rate of up to 90 percent of those infected. The one where the victims sometimes bleed out of every orifice before they die.

But other than for humanitarian reasons or if we’re going to Africa, should we be concerned?

Well, for one thing, Ebola is on the U.S. list for potential bioterror agents. That’s because it’s highly contagious and there’s no vaccine or effective treatment. Also, though this is rare, people have traveled internationally with it before their symptoms started—including to the United States.

Why Has the Current Outbreak Spread So Far?

Ebola outbreaks usually seem destined to spread, but then they go away. That’s because victims don’t travel. They’re gravely ill and quickly bedridden. Before the virus has time to spread out of the region, health care workers step in. Everyone becomes more careful with hygiene and animal meat, and the outbreak goes away, at least in humans.

The reason Doctors Without Borders calls the current outbreak unprecedented is it’s been seen in areas several hundred miles from each other. Experts suppose this is because people simply have traveled in for funerals, been exposed by helping with the body, and traveled back home before symptoms developed.

Hopefully it’s not because the virus has found a new way to spread (such as in airborne droplets). Time will tell.

Got your interest yet?

As of this writing, there has been no person-to-person spread in the U.S., at least that I know of. But it’s possible. So Ebola is one of those diseases to keep in the back of your mind because if there ever is an outbreak that puts you at risk, you can significantly decrease your risk of getting it if you know what to do.

What Could Cause an Ebola Epidemic on Other Continents?

When travelers have come down with Ebola after flying out of Africa it hasn’t spread to other people because the victims have become so sick so fast that they’ve ended up in the hospital, where strict precautions were kept. Also, the animals outside of Africa don’t carry it.

And Ebola is probably unlikely to be used as a terrorist weapon unless someone can find a way to spread it via air droplets. (So far, we don’t believe the virus spreads through the air.)

But what if we had a disaster of such magnitude that our hospital system broke down? Then we might have a problem, from travelers or terrorists. Caring for the gravely ill outside of a hospital setting would make Ebola much more likely to spread.

>> Next page: 7 important things to know if Ebola breaks out near you


Photo: CDC/ Dr. Lyle Conrad.

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  • Susan

    If in a disaster situation how would you advice containment of this virus after someone dies. This is a tough question to ask and answer, but if such an event were to happen we do need to know how to prevent further spread.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Use protective clothing–gloves, gown, goggles–when touching the body. Bury the body several feet deep or burn.

  • Ana

    Elderberry is a long-used anti-viral, coming to the US from Europe. Do you believe elderberry syrup and/or tincture would be a reasonable preventive?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Ana, elderberry is thought to be helpful in treating the flu as you can read in my post here http://www.thesurvivaldoctor.com/2014/01/15/h1n1/ and it might help with something like Ebola to boost your immune system to prevent it. But I doubt seriously if anything like that would help much once you have the Ebola virus in your system. But nothing known does, so I don’t see how it would hurt to try.

  • Stephen

    I am the vice president of a non-profit that provides financial and logistical support to missionaries in Baomahun, Sierra Leone, which is in the general affected area of the Ebola outbreak. Those missionaries are also our dear friends, having lived with us for many months.

    They received one notification from the American embassy about the Ebola outbreak, but as they suspected, it was a very low-key, “nothing to worry about” type of message. I have been trying to keep them updated on this as much as possible (they have occasional email access, and even cell phone access when they are travelling into less-remote parts of the country).

    Their thinking is that they should be OK since, unlike the locals, they are careful about what they eat, practice Western-style hygiene, and avoid contact with the obviously ill (poor health is a given, so “obviously ill” is a relative term over there). Their worry is that they take several-day trips on foot into the remotest villages that are not accessible by vehicle. On those trips, they eat with their hosts and must eat what they are served. It is considered a major insult to not eat what they are offered, so bringing their own food is not an option.

    An interesting note regarding the number of reported cases: In the very remote areas, when someone gets very sick, they do not go to the hospital. The belief is that people go to the hospital and then they die, so going to the hospital is what kills them. When they are very sick, they go to the witch doctor (yes, just like in the movies). Deaths are often not reported when they occur in the remote villages.

    Given the situation, there really isn’t a whole lot that can be done other than fervent prayer. Do you have any advice on what they should be particularly alert for? Early symptoms?

    Thank you for any assistance you might be able to provide.


    • jakartah

      Not to be flip (but I probably will be anyway..) after 43.5 years of having my health ruined by Western Medicine, I now go to Witch Doctors too! Going the holistic (herbs, supplements, energy work) was the only thing that could cure my and my child’s MRSA, acquired second hand from a filthy hospital (that continues to spread its contagion to others to this day). The biggest thing that helped was massive amounts of probiotics (immune system bolstering) and some select herbs as per Stephen Buhner’s books. I tried literally every single other thing ever conceived. I think they all added but these are the main two I am still sticking with.

      • jakartah

        And I guess the point is, is….:) We cannot count on allopathic medicine to “fix” this dilemma should it arise. We ought get our ducks in a row and have alternatives accessible and in our bank of knowledge and our pantries at all times.