Ebola and Mortality Risk: Is there anything to worry about here in the U.S.?

August 25, 2014

One of the advantages of working at AIR is that I often question colleagues about sensational news headlines, to get the real scoop. When the media starts alarming audiences with polar vortices, hyper canes, thunder snow, and the like I seek out one of my friendly neighborhood subject matter experts who work with these topics every day. Such was the case with the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

Friend and colleague Nita Madhav provided perspective by reminding me about the nature of the Ebola virus and its transmission, and pointing out that a global pandemic is very unlikely, according to public health experts, unless we help it along.

What I learned while talking with Nita is that different infections present different pandemic risk profiles. For example, influenza is transmitted by airborne spread, while Ebola virus requires direct contact with body fluids, or objects that have been contaminated with body fluids.

In terms of basic reproductive rate, or the average number of people expected to catch the disease from one infected person, Ebola ranks lower than measles, diphtheria, smallpox, and many other diseases. Basically, if you have not traveled to any of the West African countries involved, the danger that you will contract the disease is minimal.

Nita went on to explain that the healthcare infrastructure in developed nations can better implement containment measures such as isolating sick people, and has enough equipment, like masks, to protect healthcare workers. Mature communications and technology infrastructure also help by keeping the local population educated and informed.

In the U.S., we have a relatively robust public health system protecting us from such an outbreak. Given the level of supportive care that exists in the U.S., even the consequences of such an infection are much lower. In West Africa however, countries are struggling to emerge from years of civil war and violence. These are poor places with little to spend on public health.

At the moment AIR only models risk associated with pandemic influenza, although efforts to extend our capabilities to non-influenza pandemic diseases (including Filoviruses such as Ebola) are well underway. Certainly our experts are watching the current situation closely.

Christian Nestell Bovee, an epigrammatic writer from New York, once said that, "We fear things in proportion to our ignorance of them." Alarmist headlines prey upon fear and ignorance. I'm glad that I have colleagues around who can tell me what is really going on!

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