Ebola: Danger to Travellers? Or Crisis Overblown?

Between the time I write this story and you read it—perhaps 10 or 12 hours—several people will have died of Ebola hemorrhagic fever, now more commonly known as Ebola virus disease.

The fact that the deaths have occurred in rural areas of Western Africa, far away from busy tourism routes and intersections, tempers our fears and wraps the reality in veils of abstraction. We think only of the numbers, and they are overwhelming. According to a new forecasting tool developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of Ebola cases in Liberia and Sierra Leone could rise to between 550,000 and 1.4 million by January if there are no “additional interventions or changes in community behavior.”

The official toll for Ebola virus infection, as recorded by the WHO (World Health Organization), stands at 5,864 cases confirmed and 2,811 deaths as of September 19, 2014. And that’s only since March of this year. The CDC and other public health specialists have warned that official numbers grossly underestimate the true scope of Ebola virus infections as the data is based primarily on people who have come into contact with professional health care workers and facilities.

But there remain whole sub-populations who have no access to modern medical technology, who will not report deaths due to fevers (Ebola or otherwise), who will bury their own, who will continue the ritual bathing of the corpse and handling of infected bodies, who mistrust international aid workers sent to help them, and whose loved ones will never be counted.

At this phenomenal growth rate, it is unlikely that the current Zaire subtype of Ebola virus can be absolutely contained to Western Africa. There have already been confirmed reports of travellers carrying the virus out of Africa and dying within days of landing in other countries and other continents. Very few so far, but they have proved that transmission of the virus out of its host’s region is possible.

 

How can this risk affect you?

The first rule is the most obvious: Stay out of the affected regions. And if you must travel through or have connecting flights in western Africa, make sure you know if your itinerary takes you to a high-risk area. Also be careful of connecting to flights that may have originated in the affected countries. I’m not saying you should avoid the big airports in London, Paris, Rome, etc. But be prepared for more intense screening procedures by functionaries testing you for fever, or other signs of illness. That has already begun.

Also, understand that transmission of the Ebola virus is not easy, so unless you get up close and personal with someone who appears ill, you have little to worry about. The Ebola virus does not travel through the air as did SARS. You can’t catch it from doorknobs or toilet seats. You need to be in close enough proximity to someone who is infected, and showing some symptoms—vomiting, bleeding, fever.

Back in the early ’80s, I was one of many medical writers mystified by the emergence of a new mystery disease that purportedly originated in Africa and was transmitted from monkey to man. We thought that ridiculous, but as the disease spread, and research kept unveiling new transmission possibilities, we realized that we had a monster on our hands. We were assured by the scientists that the only way this infection could be passed on was through bodily fluids—blood, saliva, semen, and other secretions—but could not be transmitted through the air, or by handshakes, toilet seats, or doorknobs.

Well, how dangerous could that be, we thought? Yet in less than a year we saw what HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, could do.

 

Planning your next trip? Do not forget your travel insurance.

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