For months, the Ebola epidemic was a terrible problem isolated in Africa. Then news broke of two sick Americans being airlifted back for treatment, bringing Ebola to the U.S. for the first time ever. On purpose. Cue fear, cue outrage—all of it misplaced. It's going to be fine.
Of course, Ebola is very deadly if you do catch it; up to 90 percent of patients die from the illness. Aside from experimental vaccines and serums, there is no cure either. That's understandably scary, but the chances of Ebola spreading through the U.S.—with its modern hospitals and healthcare system—is so incredibly low that it's a near-impossibility.
Still worried? Okay, okay. Let's run through how Ebola spreads, and the technology we have to prevent it.
Unlike even your run-of-the-mill flu virus, Ebola doesn't survive well outside of the body. It could only spread through direct contact with bodily fluids, usually blood or stool, which I don't know about you, but I tend to avoid already. Ebola is also not contagious during its incubation period, meaning you can only get sick from people who already appear to be sick. Granted, the symptoms are vague and flu-like, but the bottom line is as long as you avoid the wrong kind of contact with someone who's ill, you're in the clear.
That Ebola can only be transmitted this way means the people most at risk for contracting it are family members and caretakers of patients. Indeed, a number of doctors and nurses in Africa have gotten sick from caring for Ebola patients. In the U.S., however, we have the facilities and equipment to protect healthcare workers, so bringing over two patients poses minimal risk to everyone else.
As you might expect, the Ebola patients won't be coming home in coach. Earlier this week, the CDC's medical charter plane look off from Cartersville, Georgia bound for Liberia, where it'll retrieve the Americans. It's no ordinary jet. The Gulfstream is equipped with an Aeromedical Biological Containment System, a tent that isolates the patient from the rest of the flight crew. Here is what it looks like:
Our friends at Jalopnik have a great, in-depth breakdown of the plane if you're looking for a little more detail, but suffice it to say that it's about as safe a mode of transportation as you can find on land, sea, or air.
When the patients arrive in the U.S. they will be transferred to Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. (The CDC is also headquartered in Atlanta, in case you're wondering why it's the lucky city.) According to the WSJ, Emory has one of four isolation units in the U.S. specially equipped to deal with high-risk patients. The unit is also separate from the rest of the hospital's patient areas, to minimize the spread of the illness.
Again, Ebola is transmitted through bodily fluids and not the air, healthcare workers would only need to wear gowns, masks, goggles, and gloves—rather than full-body suits—to be protected. The isolation unit at Emory, which goes beyond that to safeguard against airborne pathogens as well, features negative air pressure to prevent the virus from escaping the room. It had previously been used to treat SARS.
So bringing Ebola patients back to the U.S. is a controlled and contained process. But ho, flights crisscross the planet all the time. Could someone else inadvertently bring Ebola back to the U.S. without knowing it? And if so, what happens then?
Again, since we don't really make a habit of touching other people's blood and poop, the chances of spreading far are very small. National Geographic sums up the minimal risk of even sitting next to an exposed traveler on a plane:
Theoretically, there could be enough virus in sweat or saliva to pass on the virus through, say, an airplane armrest or a nearby sneeze, said Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist and virologist at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York. But droplets would still need a way to get through the skin.
Basically, don't rub open wounds on surfaces in public, in which case you're more likely to get something else nasty anyways.
None of this negates the fact that the situation in Africa is indeed scary. It doesn't have the healthcare infrastructure to deal with the epidemic, and stigma against healthcare workers has made finding and treating patients even more difficult.
But for us here at home, the danger comes more from poorly worded headlines about Ebola than Ebola itself.
Top image: CDC