Why Ebola isn’t as scary as a good Halloween costume

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Ebola — you hear the word and you shudder. The name evokes gruesome images on a level similar to that of the worst horror movies. News comes every day that seems to foretell a massive outbreak close to home. You begin to wonder. “Should I wear a mask to school?” Or worse, “Should I even bother going to school and risking it?”

The answer is no to the first, and yes to the second. Contrary to what the media would have you think, Ebola is not that severe a threat. A little research would show you that there is less to fear for your average citizen than you think.

For starters, Ebola is a very visible virus. By that, I mean that the symptoms are not quiet, nor are they the sort of thing you want to just muscle through or ignore. Ebola starts with a fever, which perhaps you write off as flu, but when vomiting and bleeding come up — well, those are harder to ignore. If by some chance you do experience these sorts of symptoms, you know to get yourself to a hospital anyway.

Part of the panic that goes with this outbreak of Ebola is the misconception that the virus is airborne. Quite the opposite, actually: The disease is only spread by contact with bodily fluids — blood, urine, saliva, what have you — and only if they get into your body via an opening — your mouth, for example, or a cut. You can’t get it by just touching someone with Ebola, which, odds are, you’ll only do if you’re treating an Ebola patient. Even if someone with Ebola sneezed on you — well, let’s hope you’re not walking through people’s sneeze clouds except by accident.

Even in a worst-case scenario, where you’ve been infected and you don’t know it right off the bat, it is possible to treat Ebola, albeit in a rather limited fashion. There is no cure for Ebola, but efforts are underway to develop a vaccine. Treatment at this time boils down to catching the virus in time and providing supportive therapy to make sure you survive the symptoms — for example, making sure you don’t dehydrate from the loss of fluids. There is a chance — maybe fifty-fifty — that you would survive a case of Ebola, perhaps better in the United States. But that’s assuming you get it in the first place.

And speaking of this outbreak, there have been many diseases that are more virulent and deadly than Ebola probably ever will be. Past epidemics — the Spanish flu, the bubonic plague — have killed many millions each around the world. Right now, Ebola clocks in at less than 5,000 deaths. Furthermore, we know about the disease, how it spreads, how it can be fought, and with coordinated effort, we can contain the disease and prevent further deaths.

Of course, one might argue, at some point those epidemics were limited to a few thousand cases, but eventually spread and did far more damage. In response to this, I’d like to advocate what I’ll call a little bit of “cautious paranoia.” This is a somewhat dramatic way of saying that some vigilance on everyone’s part would help to prevent further cases from popping up. It’s simple common sense, really: Avoid people when they sneeze, wash your hands often or at least disinfect them, don’t touch anything at an airport if humanly possible. If you take some easy precautions, or even go all-out to avoid the pathogen (wearing a mask is your choice, I won’t judge), then you ought to be well-off.

So go to school — this disease is no excuse to ditch.

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