Patrick J. Brennan, MD, is the Chief Medical Officer of the University of Pennsylvania Health System. He is an infectious disease physician and a former director of tuberculosis control for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health. In this guest post, he writes to share important information about the Ebola virus with the community.
As an institution founded and fueled by science, Penn Medicine has a special obligation to communicate factual information to our patients and visitors, family and friends. We write today to share some facts that may help you share information to help calm the public’s fears about the spread of Ebola in the United States. While you may not work in health care, and the likelihood of being in contact anyone personally impacted by Ebola is very remote, knowing the facts about the virus can allow you to join us in our mission to better inform the public. The general public hysteria that we are seeing currently is having a negative impact in more than just the medical world – schools, day care centers and the workplace are all reacting with misplaced fear.
Please consider the following facts. Despite Ebola’s rapid spread and high death toll in West Africa, this virus is not airborne. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids – blood, vomit, stool – of an ill patient. There has only been one death in the US from Ebola, and we now know that this tragedy was the result of delayed medical intervention. Other US cases have all recovered or are recovering from Ebola underscoring the value of the excellent medical care we have available to us here.
It is important to note that people who contract the virus, but don't yet show symptoms are not contagious. Further, those who have not traveled to West Africa, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, in the last 21 days - or had close contact with someone who has - have very little risk of contracting Ebola. Research on whether Ebola can be spread through surface contact is thin, but experts believe the virus needs to be inside a liquid – namely, bodily fluids – in order to survive, and that surfaces that are dry and not visibly soiled pose little transmission risk. Consequently, there is very little reason for members of the general public to fear casual contagion.
We are in no way minimizing the precautions that must be taken to identify and care for persons who have been exposed or confirmed to have Ebola – indeed, we are hard at work ensuring that Penn Medicine is prepared to care for these patients. However, there is no epidemic in the US and little likelihood of the number of confirmed cases here to grow rapidly.
We can all play a role in leading with the facts to help prevent the kind of destructive discrimination towards travelers and health care workers that is borne only from misinformation.