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Q&A: How Ebola is transmitted and fought

Ebola virus can spread in fluids and live outside the body but is treatable if doctors and facilities are available

As Ebola continues to spread, especially in West Africa, so has misinformation about how the virus is transmitted. That confusion escalated this week in the United States after a Liberian man was diagnosed with the Ebola in Dallas.

Up to 100 people have been identified as having “potential or possible contacts” with the victim, Thomas E. Duncan, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. However, of those identified, only a few have had direct contact with Duncan.

Health experts warn that false information about Ebola transmission has resulted in unintended hysteria. For example, a recent study from the Harvard School of Public Health shows that nearly 40 percent of those surveyed believe there will be a large Ebola outbreak in the U.S. within 12 months.

But health officials contacted by Al Jazeera consistently played down those fears.

How is Ebola transmitted?

The dangerous virus, which has killed more than 3,000 people in Africa this year, is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluids — saliva, sweat, blood, semen and other secretions — from a person who is experiencing symptoms. Those include high fever, diarrhea, vomiting, severe headaches, muscle pain, weakness, abdominal pain and unexplained bleeding, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The incubation period, from when a person is infected to the onset of symptoms, ranges from two to 21 days, according to UNICEF.

Are airline passengers at risk if someone on board has Ebola symptoms?

CDC director Tom Friedan said this week that "100 percent of the individuals getting on planes (in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Lagos) are screened for fever before they get on a plane." If anyone is found with a high fever, a symptom of Ebola, they are pulled out of line.

Duncan, the Texas patient, traveled from Liberia to the U.S. before being diagnosed with Ebola. However, "he didn't get sick until four days after he got off the airplane,"Friedan said. "We do not believe there is any risk to anyone who was on the flight at that time."

Can Ebola be transmitted through sneezing?

Ebola is not transmitted through airborne means in the same way as influenza and chicken pox, according to Martin Hirsch, professor of infectious diseases and immunology at the Harvard School of Public Health. However the CDC notes that if a symptomatic patient coughs or sneezes, and the mucus or saliva comes in contact with another person’s eyes, nose or mouth, the person can theoretically become infected.

“If somebody sneezes right on you, spits on you, defecates on you, or urinates on you and they are highly infectious at that time, then the virus can spread by any of those routes,” Hirsch said.

Someone who has Ebola and is showing symptoms can also transmit the virus through other common forms of direct contact like handshakes. If sweat, mucus or other bodily fluids are on an infected person's hands and then transferred to another's, the latter can potentially become infected through an open wound or through contact with his or her eyes, mouth or nose. 

Can Ebola be transmitted by touching a doorknob?

Hirsch said that in theory, if a person infected with Ebola touches a doorknob or arm rest, and his or her sweat is left behind, the virus can live for hours outside the host and potentially infect the next person in contact with it — if the virus reaches an open wound or that person's eyes, mouth or nose. However, Hirsch added that “the virus is not particularly stable” and will likely die within 24 hours.

How can one protect oneself from Ebola?

Using hand sanitizers can help kill Ebola living outside of a host.
Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune/MCT/Getty Images

Chlorine, hand sanitizers, heat, direct sunlight, soaps and detergents can kill Ebola viruses living outside a host, according to Doctors Without Borders.

The virus is a greater threat to family or friends living within a confined area with an infectious patient. Health experts warn those in close contact with patients to be cautious when caring for the patient and dealing with his or her bodily fluids, such as vomit.

“When taking care of that patient, just sort of sitting there in the same room isn’t a big threat,” Hirsch said. Those caring for the patients, however, need to take precautions. "If the patient is very sick — is vomiting, or has diarrhea — and the people taking care of that patient don’t wear protective gear, then they are at risk.”

Health experts recommend thoroughly washing hands and wearing protective gear when dealing with infectious patients and victims killed by the virus.

Is Ebola treatable?

Despite the enormously high death rate for Ebola victims in West Africa, the virus is treatable. Part of the problem with combatting the outbreak has to do with poor health care services in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, where the virus is spreading. The lack of physicians and poorly equipped hospitals in those countries have helped the virus propagate.

“In any first-world hospital, these things can be managed,” said Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank.

Although no specific vaccine or antiviral drug has yet proven effective against Ebola, health facilities have been able to isolate and monitor patients, and to treat their symptoms. And in many cases, patients have recovered. 

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Ebola , Public Health

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