Why You, As A Traveller, Won’t Catch Ebola

The Ebola outbreak affecting 3 countries in West Africa is getting a lot of media attention, and perhaps it should since it is the largest epidemic of this disease in history. And it can be highly lethal if you catch it; up to 60 percent of the people infected during this outbreak have died.

Since the epidemic started in a remote area of Guinea last December, and then spread to Liberia and Sierra Leone, there have been 1,201 cases with 672 recorded deaths.

This viral infection is not easy to catch. . . unless you come into close personal contact with someone who has the infection. Close personal contact means caring for someone who is ill and coming in contact with his or her body fluids (saliva, vomit, blood, etc.). Unless you are returning to a village to care for a sick a relative or in response to his or her death, you won’t meet these criteria.

On the other hand, if you are a health worker who is not fully covered head to toe while caring for Ebola patients, you are at high risk, and quite a few doctors and nurses have died during this outbreak due to lack of protective gear.

Close personal contact also means following cultural traditions for preparing a deceased victim for burial without adequate protection. The deceased person can transmit this virus, for example, during washing and manipulating the body.

So, in principle this disease should be easy to control by simple public health measures. Just find the people who are infected as soon as possible before they infect someone else, get them to the hospital for treatment, provide protective gear for the health care workers, find and quarantine all the contacts, and circumvent traditional cultural burial practices by prompt burial of the deceased. What is the problem?

The challenges are not medical but rather social, cultural and institutional. Local health care facilities in the affected countries, for example, are often lacking protective equipment and isolation capacity. They can become places for spread of the virus.

The people often lack modern understanding of infectious illness, and an ill person may seek ineffective care from traditional healers and not be isolated. Until the person goes to the hospital as a last resort when they are very sick, they end up infecting many of their immediate family members who are caring for them. When the sick person does get to the hospital and sees doctors and nurses in full protective gear with goggles and masks, it can be very frightening.

Rumours about the disease, e.g., that westerners and strangers introduced it, are common and often dissuade sick people from seeking care. Because many people are poor and illiterate, it is not easy to explain how you get this virus and that you have to change ingrained burial practices and misplaced beliefs.

So, it is easy to see how, with a few elementary precautions, you, as a traveller, won’t get this illness. It is a rare disease that, in the past 40 years, has killed about 2,000 people all together. That’s a lot less than the millions killed by malaria, cholera, measles, diarrhoea, HIV, flu, and many other “less exotic” infectious diseases in Western Africa.

Final word: you, the average traveller to Guinea, Sierra Leone, or Liberia, don’t have to worry about Ebola. There are much more common risks that you need to consider and take prevention measures to avoid them.