Folks, I’m going to cut right to the chase:
Don’t worry about Ebola, worry about the flu.
Yes, David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, really. Worry more about a seasonal malady than the disease that has been all over the news and involves bleeding from your eyeballs.
First, let’s look at the numbers:
According to the World Health Organization, there have been fewer than 10,000 cases of Ebola reported in the history of the world, anywhere. Some of these outbreaks have mortality rates where the average is 50%, which I agree is alarming, but they occurred in regions of Africa with terrifyingly few doctors. The CIA World Factbook estimates the number of physicians in the Congo at around 1 doctor for every 10,000 people.
That’s less than 1/30th of the number of physicians per person available in the U.S.
Considering that treatment for Ebola is supportive (i.e. fluids to keep patients hydrated and blood products to prevent the aforementioned bleeding), having more than 1 doctor for every 10,000 people to identify cases of Ebola and then isolate and treat them is pretty critical for patients’ survival (never mind that I doubt doctors in the Congo have stockrooms full of IV fluids and blood products to administer to their patients, unlike US docs) and for keeping the disease contained. These countries are hobbled from the start by their lack of healthcare infrastructure.
There’s obviously no way to prove this assertion, but I’d bet money on mortality rates improving drastically if folks with Ebola had nearly four doctors per 1,000 people, like we do in the U.S, to make sure folks were getting identified, treated, and isolated as recommended.
By contrast, the CDC reports flu deaths in the US alone since the 1970s have varied from 3,000 annually to nearly 50,000 annually, and that’s with our 3.74 doctors per 1,000 persons.
Yes, more people have died in one country in one year from the flu than have ever even caught Ebola.
I think I’m slightly more likely to die of flu than Ebola, 50% mortality rate notwithstanding.
Second, let’s look at the method of transmission:
The flu is mostly transmitted via droplets of saliva. You can be talking to someone from around six feet away, breathe in a microscopic respiratory droplet expelled while they’re speaking, and congratulations, you’ve contracted the flu!
Yes, Captain Picard, really. The speaker doesn’t even have to be sick—adults can transmit the flu for a day before becoming symptomatic, and for up to seven days afterward. Kids, bless those adorable little disease vectors, can transmit the virus for even longer than adults.
By contrast, while Ebola transmission via respiratory means has been documented in laboratory animals, it’s never been documented in humans. Ebola transmission has only been documented via direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids and broken skin, or broken skin and fabric which has recently been in close contact with someone who is infected. Plus, Ebola appears to only be infectious while the patient is symptomatic.
So basically, don’t get your open skin in contact with the blood, bodily fluids, or fabric recently in close contact with the blood or bodily fluids of a person with Ebola symptoms and you’re not going to catch it.
Seems much simpler than not standing within six feet of anyone for all of flu season!
Third, let’s look at where Ebola prefers to live:
As best as we can tell, Ebola usually lives not in humans, but in bats.
Yes, really, Skeptical Fruit Bat!
Specifically, Ebola lives in bats which live in West Africa.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a West African bat, much less eating one, which is probably how Ebola outbreaks start.
By contrast, the most common reservoir for influenza is humans, and as I mentioned before, you can get the flu just by talking to an asymptomatic human, which I do all the time.
Tl;dr: Let’s sum up:
- Some years, more people die of flu in the US alone than have ever caught Ebola, much less died from it.
- You can catch the flu by talking to an asymptomatic human, whereas you need to have a break in your skin and come in close contact with a symptomatic human’s (or recently dead corpse’s) bodily fluids to catch Ebola.
- Ebola lives in fruit bats in West Africa. The flu lives in humans all over the word.
I’m more concerned about the flu than Ebola, and I hope you are now, too.
So, what can you do?
- Get your flu shot. The CDC recommends it for everyone over the age of six months and no contraindications (i.e. allergy to eggs or chicken products, reactions to previous vaccines, etc.). Obviously, talk to your doctor or pharmacist, but even if you’re young and healthy and probably won’t spend more than a couple of terrible days with the flu, there are a couple of reasons to get the flu vaccine. Obviously, it will (hopefully, but that’s another blog) prevent you being home for a couple of terrible days with the flu, which is pretty great, but your immunity to the flu will protect immunosuppressed and vulnerable people from getting the flu.
VERY IMPORTANT SIDENOTE: Who is an immunosuppressed or vulnerable person? An infant, an elderly person, or folks who are on certain medications, so obviously don’t go sneezing directly your grandma’s face, but—and I can’t emphasize this enough—you can’t always tell who these folks are. Personally, I can think of several Sheroes off the top of my head who have immunosuppressed in the past couple of years. These Sheroes have undergone treatment for cancer, developed an autoimmune disease and needed temporary treatment, or are undergoing treatment for chronic diseases like IBS or arthritis or Crohn’s disease. I’ve personally seen several of these folks while immunosuppressed, and they looked like young, healthy folks because for the most part, they are. They’re out making a living, running errands at the grocery store and post office, and being Sheroic less than six feet away from other humans, as is their right and our privilege, because they add so much to our lives and communities.
So get your flu shot. If nothing else, you’re helping other Sheroes do their Sheroic thing.
- Wash your hands after coughing, sneezing, or using the bathroom, and sneeze “like a vampire” .
NO, not the creepy, sexist, stalkery vampire that lives in a town that shares a name with a dining utensil and the sparkles in the sunlight! This is Sheroes, after all! Sneeze like an old-school Dracula vampire, and then don’t rub your luxurious red-velvet lined cape onto other people’s mucous membranes.
- If you do get the flu, stay home from work/school if at all possible. Remember how you can’t always see those vulnerable populations? Besides, it’ll help you heal faster.
- Support Ebola research and public health efforts, because it is a terrible disease which involves bleeding out places you should never bleed. Charity Navigator has a special interest page if you feel moved to give monetarily to anti-Ebola efforts (personally, I’m a Doctors Without Borders fangirl, but I guess those other charities are pretty rockin’, too). I know I’ll be voting for political candidates who want to increase funding for scientific research in my local and national elections, because while an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, sometimes, a pound of cure is exactly what you need, and we don’t have one, yet. Scientists are developing one, but scientific research is expensive. Let’s fund that stuff!
- Do your research, think critically, don’t post alarmist articles on Facebook (or anywhere else), and if you are in contact with someone who is symptomatic for Ebola, use contact precautions like wearing a surgical mask, gown, cap, and gloves when in contact with them, their bodily fluids, or substances which may have come in contact with their bodily fluids.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and stay Sheroic this flu season!
Fancci is a US osteopathic medical school student in her clinical years. She hopes to one day open a rural family practice clinic, but first needs to survive the rest of med school and a residency.