"Ebola is going to take over the country, right?"
These days, folks who know me as an infectious-diseases specialist kickstart conversations with a similar question and then ask, "Should I buy a gas mask and a space suit?"
Calm down, people! Yes, Ebola is devastating, and it may continue to gnaw at Africa and the developing world, but it won't turn into an American catastrophe. Let me explain why I believe we will win this battle.
Having managed the outbreaks of SARS in 2003, swine flu in 2009 and fungal meningitis in 2012, many of us in the infectious-diseases community have been there, done that. Each time, the talking heads with zero experience with infections diseases increased the size of the haystack by piling up "What if?" scenarios like they are doing now: What if the virus mutates and becomes airborne? (Viruses don't change their mode of transmission due to mutations.) What if one patient infected a whole airplane? (That would only be possible if such a patient were running a fever and vomiting or defecating all over the plane.) What if an exposed child spreads the infection to his or her entire whole school? (Thank you; this ridiculous fear has already forced school closures in Ohio and Texas.) And so on....
Listen, don't listen to such hysteria. Ask the experts and stick to the facts.
The fact is this: The virus spreads through bodily fluids and physical touch. Unlike measles, which is an airborne disease that can be spread to others up to four days prior to the onset of rash, Ebola is not airborne and only spreads after the infected person develops symptoms. That's why, despite the CDC's prediction of 1.4 million cases worldwide by mid-January 2015, I believe the number of Americans who contract Ebola will not exceed the double digits.
I also believe that well over 50 percent of American Ebola patients will survive -- in contrast with the 10- to 30-percent survival rate in Africa. Our access to supportive measures like ventilators, blood transfusions, and dialysis will account for the difference. At the time of this writing, eight Americans have been diagnosed with Ebola; of those eight, one died, three recovered, and four are in treatment.
Loss of life is never trivial. I get that. But let's not lose perspective. A century ago, over 600,000 Americans died during the Spanish flu outbreak. Annually, an average of 30,000 Americans die from seasonal influenza. So do me a favor: If you are worried about Ebola, get a flu shot.
We in the medical community are learning our lesson from the missteps at the Dallas hospital where two nurses contracted the virus. That's partly why the idea of establishing regional Ebola centers is gaining momentum. What it means is that Ebola patients will be transferred to large regional hospitals with a lean team of professionals adept at and equipped for managing such patients. In fact, New York City's Bellevue Hospital was just declared to be such a center for New York City.
If you are still skeptical, then take comfort in this: Nigeria and Senegal, with rampant corruption and limited resources, were just declared Ebola-free. We can do it too.
Here is the downside to this media frenzy: The more people panic, the more risk-averse they become. And then a potential medical catastrophe quickly turns into a real economic disaster: Travel declines, trade suffers, schools close, and markets crash. On Oct. 15, as news of a second nurse in Dallas testing positive for Ebola spread, the Dow Jones lost 460 points, wiping out all the gains of 2014. And don't forget the number $37 billion: It's the annual financial impact of seasonal influenza in the U.S.
As Ebola becomes old news in the coming weeks and months, it will leave us with familiar lessons: that a virus so brutally indiscriminate teaches mankind to collaborate, not compete; that when scientists share data and countries pool resources, heroic goals are achieved; that in the end, with meticulous contact tracing and proper use of masks, gloves, and gowns, we win.
And that's when life will return to its conceited reality, where we humans inflict far more harm on each other than any virus inflicts on us.
Dr. Faheem Younus is a clinical associate professor at the University of Maryland and the Clinical Director of Healthcare Epidemiology and Infection Prevention at the Upper Chesapeake Health. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.