Liz Szabo takes health threats seriously. "After 14 years as a medical reporter, I'm a self-confessed germaphobe," she writes. "I buy hand sanitizer in bulk. I haven't touched a raw chicken in years. I no longer eat sprouts or cantaloupes, which have caused far too many food poisoning outbreaks."
"But I'm not even a little worried about getting Ebola."
She goes on to explain why. Ebola is hard to catch. It's reasonably straightforward for sophisticated public-health systems — which America has, and which West Africa often doesn't — to stop. Even now, amidst the (accurate!) talk of the "worst Ebola outbreak ever," there are only around 7,000 confirmed cases — a far cry from the roughly 200 million malaria cases each year.
At the end of her piece, she quotes Paul Offit, chief of infectious diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, making a powerful point:
"I bet that if we put out an Ebola virus vaccine tomorrow, half of this country would take it, even though it hasn't killed anyone who hasn't traveled" to the affected countries. "Yet you can't get parents to give their children an HPV vaccine to prevent a virus that kills 4,000 U.S. citizens a year."
You can say the same about all kinds of things that are likelier to kill you than Ebola. More than 10,000 people died in drunk driving crashes in 2012 — but plenty of people still drive drunk. Measles are nine times as contagious as Ebola — but we've seen large outbreaks of late because people are refusing to get vaccinated.
The level of terror around Ebola in the United States around Ebola is wildly outsized to the actual threat it poses to the lives of Americans. As Atul Gawande writes, this is a disease that can be stopped:
In a 1996 case in South Africa, a patient spent twelve days in a high-level hospital sick with an illness that wasn't recognized as Ebola until after he was discharged. Some three hundred health-care workers took care of him. None contracted the disease. A 1995 study of a Congo outbreak looked at seventy-eight household members who lived with patients with Ebola who did not directly touch them or their fluids after they became sick. Again, none contracted the disease.
This relatively weak transmissibility makes the standard public-health technique of contact-tracing effective in halting the disease. Track down the people who've been in contact with a sick patient; measure their temperatures and check on them daily for twenty-one days; if any turn up with a fever or looking sick, put them into isolation. Once you get anywhere upward of seventy per cent of the contacts under such surveillance, the disease stops spreading.
For patients who need to be isolated, the requirements are not terribly fancy. You need a room with a door that can close. There's no need for special ventilation. The door is not to keep germs from coming out but to keep people from inadvertently going in and touching the person. Medical equipment should be dedicated to just the patient. Family members or workers can enter the room if they wear a standard fluid-resistant gown, gloves, eye protection, and a face mask. If they might be exposed to the patient's bodily fluids, they should wear double gloves, shoe covers, and leg coverings.
If you're afraid of Ebola, you're probably more likely to save your life by going and getting your seasonal flu shot than by worrying about how to quarantine yourself.