Why You Shouldn't Freak Out About the First U.S. Ebola Patient

Today, the CDC confirmed the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the U.S.: a man who was traveling in Liberia and is now at a hospital in Dallas. Should you panic about Ebola now? Nope, and here's why.

The bottom line is that Ebola spreads only through the direct contact with bodily fluids—making it a whole lot harder to spread than the airborne common flu. We also know exactly how to stop Ebola; the crisis in Africa has gotten so bad due to lack of healthcare infrastructure. "I have no doubt we will control this case of Ebola so it does not spread widely," CDC director Tom Frieden said in a press conference this afternoon.

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The CDC also gave some details about the patient, who was presumably exposed to the virus in Liberia. He didn't have any symptoms when he arrived in the U.S. on September 20. He got sick four days later and was admitted to the Texas hospital on Sunday, where he was placed in isolation. Today, a CDC lab confirmed he was positive for Ebola.

The patient will stay at the Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas rather than be moved to one of then nation's four high-level containment units. This decision actually makes a lot of sense—any modern hospital is perfectly well equipped to deal with diseases that transmit only through bodily fluids. Moving a patient, on the other hand, creates a whole other set of risks.

In the meantime, the CDC is also identifying anyone who may have been in contact with the patient after he got sick. (Ebola is not contagious until you already have symptoms.) This circle of people will be closely monitored for 21 days, the maximum length of Ebola's incubation period.

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There's been plenty of terrifying news about Ebola from Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, where the outbreak is still raging. But there's been a glimmer good news out of Africa, too. Just yesterday, the CDC released a report showing that Ebola had been successfully contained in Nigeria and Senegal. In each of these two countries, which have relatively intact healthcare infrastructures, a sick patient traveling from an infected area was quickly identified and isolated. Needless to say, the U.S. has the same healthcare resources—and more.

When two American Ebola patients were airlifted from Africa in August, we went into depth about why Ebola was unlikely to spread in U.S. If you're still feeling uncertain, read on.

Top image: Inside an isolation ward where another Ebola patient was transported after becoming ill in Africa. Credit: University of Nebraska Medical Center

Why You Shouldn't Freak Out About Ebola Patients Coming to the U.S.

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.

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Still worried? Okay, okay. Let's run through how Ebola spreads, and the technology we have to prevent it.

How to catch (or probably not catch) Ebola

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.

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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.

How to fly an Ebola patient halfway around the world

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:

CDC

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.

How to isolate a patient in the hospital

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.

But what about other Ebola cases?

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?

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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.

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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