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The 6 biggest myths about Ebola, debunked

Police, fire and medical services take part in a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear exercise in Hong Kong on October 27, 2009
Police, fire and medical services take part in a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear exercise in Hong Kong on October 27, 2009
MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

The world is currently experiencing the worst Ebola outbreak on record. It started in Guinea in December 2013 and has since spread to four other countries in West Africa. On September 30, a patient was diagnosed in the United States for the first time. Altogether, the outbreak has infected more than 6,500 people and killed about 3,000.

Unfortunately, as Ebola spreads, there has been a surprising amount of misinformation on the subject. Here are five common myths you might have heard about Ebola, debunked:

1) Myth: Ebola outbreaks are unstoppable

That's not true. In fact, every previous Ebola outbreak has been controlled and stopped. It is true, however, that the current Ebola outbreak has been much tougher to contain.

Deaths by outbreak

Ebola deaths by outbreak. (Joss Fong/Vox)

There have been 33 previous outbreaks of various Ebola viruses on record, all of which have been contained and stopped with far smaller death tolls than this one.

In previous outbreaks, health officials have successfully followed these steps to stop the disease from spreading: (1) find the patients (2) isolate the patients (3) find everyone those original patients have contacted (4) keep the patients isolated until they're no longer a threat. This approach is capable of containing an outbreak in most places around the world, including in the United States.

The massive outbreak this year in West Africa is new and unusual — and Ebola managed to spread so widely because of a combination of factors. It took several months before officials even realized that Ebola was in the region, many of those countries had impoverished health-care infrastructures, and the international response was weak and delayed. That gave the disease time to spread, making it much, much tougher to contain once people realized it was Ebola. In September, some scientists predicted that they expect the outbreak to last another 12 to 18 months.

2) Myth: Ebola is a death sentence

In fact, about half of Ebola patients survive. And good medical care may be able to improve outcomes.

brantly

American doctor Kent Brantly is arguably the most famous Ebola survivor in the US. (Jessica McGowan)

Ebola doesn't kill everyone who catches it. The current big outbreak, which is centered in West Africa, has killed roughly half of those who have contracted the disease.

The survival rate in all previous outbreaks of the Ebola virus EBOV (formerly called Zaire ebolavirus) has been about 20 percent. Those who survive can go back to good health and rejoin their communities. (And they'll be somewhat protected from that Ebola virus for at least the next ten years.)

Although there is no specific cure for Ebola, good medical care can help people survive. Treatment may include IV fluids to prevent dehydration from diarrhea and vomiting, as well as antibiotics to prevent or treat other infections in the body. (Ebola seems to have a suppressive effect on the immune system, which can make people especially susceptible to additional infections by unrelated bacteria.)

Some people have also received experimental therapies, but there isn't enough data yet to know if they're helpful.

3) Myth: Ebola patients always hemorrhage blood

In fact, most Ebola patients don't bleed at all. Many earlier symptoms of Ebola look a lot like the flu.

Blood on white background

(Shutterstock)

Bleeding is one of Ebola's more recognizable symptoms — but it doesn't happen to everyone, and it's rarely a huge volume of blood. For example, one study of a 1995 Ebola outbreak found external bleeding in only 41 percent of cases. And people who bled weren't any more likely to die than those who didn't.

One of the trickiest things about Ebola is that in its early stages it often looks like other feverish illnesses, such as malaria or the flu, making it difficult to diagnose. If bleeding does happen, it's usually in later stages of the disease. Some people may bleed from the eyes, nose, ears, mouth, or rectum. They may also bleed from puncture sites if they've had an IV. Internal bleeding can happen, as well. What actually kills people isn't hemorrhaging itself. It's shock from multiple organ failure, including problems with the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system.

4) Myth: Ebola is an airborne disease

The reality is that Ebola spreads through bodily fluids

Gas mask respirator

(Shutterstock)


Ebola's mode of transmission is through the bodily fluids of someone who is ill with Ebola (or has died from Ebola). It's not an airborne disease that floats around for long distances.

If someone coughs, sneezes, or vomits close to your face, it's possible that Ebola could be transmitted to you through those bigger liquid droplets if you get them into your eyes, nose, or mouth. However, Ebola doesn't travel far through the air like some other viruses, such as the flu or the measles. Sitting several rows away from an infectious Ebola patient on a plane shouldn't put you at risk. Nor would sitting across the room from someone with the disease.

In addition, Ebola is unlikely to develop the ability to become transmitted over long distances through the air. It's exceptionally rare for a virus to change how it infects people. As Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Congress in September: "Very, very rarely does [a virus] completely change the way it's transmitted."

5) Myth: Ebola is easy to get

Ebola is much harder to catch than, say, the measles. To contract Ebola, you have to come into contact with the bodily fluids of someone who is already showing symptoms.

Medics carry a Nigerian patient Fabian Chiman Egeolu, suspected of being infected with the Ebola virus, during his transfer to another hospital in Istanbul, Turkey on September 25, 2014. (Metin Pala/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

To catch Ebola you have to somehow touch the bodily fluids of someone who has symptoms of the disease.

People who are incubating the virus but not yet ill are not infectious. You need to touch those bodily fluids, including sweat, blood, vomit, or diarrhea, and then somehow get the virus into your body through your mouth, eyes, nose, some other mucus membrane, or an open cut. Corpses can also be infectious, and the virus can stay on surfaces for several hours if not properly decontaminated.

An epidemiologist writing in the Washington Post notes that Ebola is currently spreading from each patient to only one or two other people on average. And for comparison, he notes that before measles vaccination became standard, each case of measles transmitted to an average of 17 other people. 

In a hospital using proper infection-control procedures, health-care workers should not catch Ebola. Several Americans have been treated for Ebola in the US this year, and no cases have been transmitted in a US hospital.

For more on this one, check out Julia Belluz's story on how you can — and can't — catch Ebola.

6) Myth: Ebola is the most dangerous disease on the planet

In fact, Ebola kills far fewer people than many other diseases, including malaria and HIV/AIDS.

wboladeath
All deaths are 2012 numbers except for Ebola, which is the sum total of deaths in the current outbreak as of the end of September.

Even though Ebola has one of the highest death rates among infectious diseases, it doesn't kill nearly as many people in Africa as HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, diarrhea, and malaria. That's because far more people end up getting those other diseases.

That said, Ebola can still be deadly. The CDC currently projects a possible worst-case scenario of as many as 1.4 million total cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone by January 20, 2015. (The outbreak is thought to have started very late in 2013, so that would be roughly 1.4 million cases in one year.)

If that worst-case scenario happens, it could mean roughly 700,000 deaths, which could bump Ebola up to the third slot on this chart.

Another complication worth noting is that the Ebola outbreak has been overwhelming whatever health-care systems have been in place in many of the countries affected in West Africa, which has been leading to more deaths from non-Ebola health problemssuch as malaria.

"West Africa will see much more suffering and many more deaths during childbirth and from malaria, tuberculosis, HIV-AIDS, enteric and respiratory illnesses, diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mental health during and after the Ebola epidemic," disease researchers Jeremy Farrar, of the Wellcome Trust, and Peter Piot, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said in an editorial in The New England Journal of Medicine in September.

Correction: Fixed the statement about the protective effect that being an Ebola survivor has on the risk of future Ebola infections.