Thanks to increased vigilance and preparation, the reality is there’s no need to panic.

By Hallie Levine
Updated January 17, 2020

Ebola rarely makes headlines in America. A recent scare involving a college student in Kentucky turned out not to be the deadly virus. And the current outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) in Central Africa—that country’s largest and the world's second largest in history—has been significantly contained.

However, during the 2014-2016 outbreak that devastated West Africa, 11 people were treated in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Seven of those patients, mostly medical workers, fell ill on foreign soil before being transported to U.S. hospitals. Four others in the U.S. developed symptoms after either traveling to that beleaguered part of the world or caring for Ebola patients in the states.

While that might seem frightening, the reality is there’s no need to panic. Here are five things to know about Ebola.

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The virus doesn't spread easily

Unlike diseases such as measles or influenza, which are spread through the air and thus can easily be transmitted through sneezing and coughing, you can only contract the Ebola virus via a contaminated person’s blood or other bodily fluids—and even then, they have to get inside of your body through your mouth, eyes, nose, or a cut, Amesh Adalja, MD, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, previously told Health.

As the CDC statistics suggest, it generally takes close contact with someone who had the virus. Craig Spencer, MD, director of global health in emergency medicine at New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, famously developed symptoms after returning from Guinea, where he had treated Ebola patients as a volunteer. He fully recovered from the virus after 19 days of treatment at New York’s Bellevue Hospital.

You can’t be a silent carrier

While some illnesses have an incubation period during which you can unknowingly infect others, Ebola is not contagious until the infected person is actively showing symptoms. And if that’s the case, “it’s doubtful they’d be up and about, moving around,” Dr. Adalja told Health. “They’d most likely be bedridden—it’s a pretty debilitating disease.”

Bottom line? If you’re sitting next to someone on a train, they probably don’t have Ebola, and even if they’re about to develop it, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to infect you. In September 2014, the CDC confirmed the first case of travel-associated Ebola diagnosed in the U.S. The man flew from Liberia to Dallas but didn’t start showing symptoms until several days after arriving in the states—meaning people on the flight with him were not at risk.

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We’re prepared

After the 2014-2016 outbreak, the National Ebola Training and Education Center was created to help hospitals throughout the country implement best practices for treating Ebola patients and preventing the spread of the disease. Today there are 10 academic medical centers across the country with federally funded biocontainment units, and hundreds of other hospitals have received training.

Hospital staff now know to question any patient who shows up in an emergency room with Ebola-like symptoms—fever, severe headache, diarrhea, and vomiting—about their travel history and, if there’s anything remotely suspicious, to put them in quarantine.

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We know how to stop it from spreading

The main reason Ebola spread like wildfire in Africa was because of poor hospital and funeral practices. Dr. Adalja told Health that people were taking care of sick relatives without any protective equipment and burying family members themselves. According to the CDC, the virus can spread through direct contact with the blood or body fluids of someone who has died from Ebola or even objects contaminated with those fluids, such as clothing, bedding, needles, and medical equipment.

And here’s more encouraging news: Now there’s another way to protect against future outbreaks of the most common strain of the virus. On Dec. 19, 2019, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Ervebo, (Ebola Zaire Vaccine, Live), a single-dose injection for adults 18 and older. The vaccine provides immunity within about 10 days and is seen as a major stride in the global fight against infectious disease.

Visit the CDC for the latest updates on Ebola.

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