Fear of an Ebola outbreak in the United States has created a lot of attention in the news since the first known carrier was discovered in Dallas, TX. That’s because the disease can spread at an accelerated rate and if left unchecked could infect the United States entire population in less than a calendar year.
For every existing case of the Ebola virus, there is the possibility of two new cases occurring with those cases also potentially creating two new cases and so on (see Figure 1). Including that potential exposure along with the average 10-day gestation period would result in a potential outbreak up to the
U.S. population of 317 million in just 292 days.
That would mean roughly 13 Americans would be infected per second on average on day 292 of the outbreak.
There are currently only three confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States, but there seems to be a real fear of an outbreak occurring, as initial victim in Dallas took two different flights within the United States. Imagine two people people on each flight who were exposed to the infected, took connecting flights with 90 people on board to other parts of the country. If two of those people exposed on the initial flight to the initial victim were infected and took subsequent flights, that is where a scary chain reaction of exposures can begin.
The latest outbreak of Ebola in West Africa is the worst outbreak in the virus’ short known history, with over 700 confirmed deaths combined between the African nations of Liberia, Nigeria, Guinea and Sierra Leone in just six months. Though the latest outbreak’s mortality rate has been lower than past outbreaks, it has spread to significantly more people.
Ebola is a relatively “new” disease, with the first case being reported back in 1976 in the area around Zaire and Sudan. Ebola is an RNA virus that has the appearance of a “worm” under a microscope, which can take over cells in the body forcing them to reproduce more Ebola cells, which then violently exit the infected cell to spread further, hijack more cells in the body and repeat the process all over again.
Some of the early symptoms of the Ebola virus according to the CDC include fever, severe headache, and muscle pain, which can then quickly progress to diarrhea, vomiting, skin lesions, excessive swelling, unexplained bleeding from mucous membranes and eventually death. Currently there is no FDA-approved vaccine for Ebola according to the CDC, but practicing proper hygiene and avoiding the handling of items that have come in contact with infected victims bodily fluids such as needles, clothes and bedding can help prevent contraction.
Typically in more well developed countries the spread of the Ebola virus has been limited and often quarantined once the first infection is reported, but the virus’ long gestation period can lead to an early misdiagnosis and contact between infected victims and the general public, especially in enclosed mass transit vehicles like airplanes, which has sparked a lot of the fear of an outbreak. In some of the West African countries where the outbreak has been more large scale, it was typically because of the lack of medical infrastructure and available care to quickly treat and quarantine the virus.
Currently it is not believed that Ebola can be contracted through the air, water or from food, but those exposed to the bodily fluids of infected mammals can be exposed and at risk to the virus. Exposure to bats, which do not show symptoms of Ebola, and other animals who are infected can also continue the spread of the virus.
Currently there is no cure for the virus.