Below is information on keeping yourself and family safe, but to keep things in perspective, I need to explain a few things about Ebola.
First, Ebola is extremely deadly if you don’t have access to a modern hospital. Even if you get the best care, this is a very dangerous disease because it is a virus infection.
You may have heard about the strains of antibiotic resistant infections due to over-use of antibiotics in food animals and extreme use of anti-bacterial soaps which cause bacteria to mutate.
But that doesn’t apply to Ebola, which is a virus infection. There is no anti-virus drug which would be equivalent to anti-biotics.
There are some drugs which can enhance a patient’s own immune system to fight off a viral infection but these are only partially effective.
With a viral infection, whether it is the common cold, the yearly flu, (which kills about 200,000 each year world-wide, or an extremely dangerous hemorrhagic infection such as Ebola, has to be beaten by the patient’s own immune system and the standard treatment is to support them with fluids and bed rest to keep them alive long enough for their immune system to react.
The CDC (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/disease/us_flu-related_deaths.htm) reports “Thompson MG et al. Updated Estimates of Mortality Associated with Seasonal Influenza through the 2006-2007 Influenza Season. MMWR 2010; 59(33): 1057-1062.,” provides updated estimates of the range of flu-associated deaths that occurred in the United States during the three decades prior to 2007. CDC estimates that from the 1976-1977 season to the 2006-2007 flu season, “flu-associated deaths ranged from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.[in the U.S. alone!]”
And remember that with up to 50,000 deaths in the U.S. each year form the flu, we have a highly effective immunization available every year.
Keep those numbers in mind when you hear that Ebola is killing thousands of people.
Protecting yourself and your family
To protect yourself, you need to know some basic facts about Ebola and how you could catch it.
First, and most importantly, if someone is infected with Ebola, it will take between 2 and 21 days before they show any symptoms (incubation period).
That explains why a Dallas patient was able to return from Africa and come down with Ebola here in the U.S.
He or she simply wasn’t sick when they got on an airplane or when they left the U.S. airport where they arrived.
That is actually very good news, because an Ebola patient simply isn’t infectious (except perhaps by a direct blood transfusion), until they already have a fever and other symptoms.
What that means for you is that as long as you stay away from people who have very recently returned from Africa, you won’t be exposed to Ebola at all.
Even after an Ebola patient is quite sick, there are some simple steps such as wearing hospital-grade gloves and an N-95 mask.
This is the same mask you would wear around a flu patient and is simply a common dust filter mask.
A virus is incredibly small compared to dust but that doesn’t matter, since any virus in the air is there because it is being carried by tiny drops of fluid from a sneeze or other source.
An N-95 grade mask will stop the drop and also the virus.
Ebola patients are only capable of infecting others when they are obviously sick – although they may be well enough to walk around as was the person in Dallas who actually went to a hospital asking for help and was initially sent home with, ironically, some antibiotics. Two days later he/she was sick enough to require an ambulance to require transport to a hospital and was immediately put in isolation.
When they are infectious you can only catch the virus by contact with some bodily fluid to open wounds, “through mucous membranes, breaks in the skin, or parenterally [intravenously or via injection].” Quote from CDC
Most people are extremely unlikely to ever encounter an Ebola patient, but if you are in a situation where this is more likely or if you are a family member or co-worker of someone who is just returning from the infection areas in Africa, you can protect yourself further by using N-95 masks and always caring for the person wearing hospital-grade gloves. Eye protection is also critical.
If you are associated with someone who does develop Ebola, you should notify authorities immediately, but if no help is immediately available you, you should be prepared to burn bedding and perhaps clothing, being careful not to make contact with any possibly infected material with bare skin.
One of the big problems in Africa is that the medical infrastructure is lacking, patients can’t get to hospitals and even if they do, there are few supplies, and hospitals in these countries are NOT prepared to deal with infectious diseases.
Therefore the medical workers and even governments are completely overwhelmed.
In the U.S. and many other countries, certainly all industrialized countries, most hospitals are capable of isolating patients and treating highly infectious diseases.
That means developed countries won’t be overwhelmed by patient loads even if Ebola makes it into the country and spreads to close friends of infected individuals.
The WHO (World Health Organization) has published guidelines to protect the general public in infectious areas and these should be sufficient for non-medical workers, that is, the general public.
Disinfection for VHF [viral hemorrhagic fever – like Ebola]-Contaminated Items
“Ordinary household bleach, soap and water are useful disinfectants against viruses causing VHF.6 They are low in cost and commonly available.”
Ordinary Household Bleach: The viruses causing VHF are very sensitive to bleach solution. This manual describes a low-cost disinfection system using two bleach solutions: a solution of 1:10 and a solution of 1:100. Detailed instructions for preparing the solutions are in Section 5.1.
Soap and Clean Water: Scrubbing with soap and water before disinfection removes infectious body fluids and other foreign matter from contaminated items. This makes bleach solutions more effective. Detailed instructions for preparing solutions of soapy water are in Section 5.2.
Sterilization: Heat sterilization requires special equipment, such as an autoclave or steam sterilizer. When this equipment is not working or is not available, boiling heat-resilient items in water for 20 minutes will kill VHF viruses.