The Ebola virus is back again. The Democratic Republic of the Congo is rushing to prevent the latest outbreak from spreading beyond its borders. But the West African epidemic from 2014 to 2016 — which touched nine countries and killed over 11,000 people — is still fresh in many minds. With flights connecting every corner of the world, many fear that this deadly virus could wreak havoc on international airports, leading to a worldwide panic, again. But travelers should absolutely not be afraid. Here’s why.
Emily Scott is a Registered Nurse of eight years with a Diploma in Tropical Nursing from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. She deployed to Sierra Leone in 2015 to help contain West Africa’s Ebola epidemic. Emily works as a labor and delivery nurse in Washington state and travels abroad frequently for humanitarian medical service.
1. Ebola isn’t new.
Outbreaks of the hemorrhagic fever have been occurring in Africa since 1976. They just didn’t make major headlines until 2014, when the West African epidemic got out of control. Dedicated and knowledgeable health workers have been stopping the virus in its tracks for decades. Despite the unusual set of circumstances that led to its spread in West Africa, Ebola’s history is largely one of brief flare-ups followed by successful containment.
2. It’s farther away than you think.
Even if you’re planning to travel to Africa, it’s unlikely you’ll be anywhere near the danger zone. The current outbreak is centered in a remote, conflict-ridden area of DRC — no one is going there on vacation. Africa is a gigantic continent (big enough to fit the United States three times), and most visitors will be hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from the nearest Ebola patient. Would you cancel a trip to Disneyland if there was a measles outbreak in New York City?
3. Ebola is hard to catch.
Despite how it may appear on the news, Ebola is not the world’s most contagious disease. It is spread by physical contact with bodily fluids. So to catch it, you would have to touch the blood, saliva, or other fluids of a person who is ill. Ebola is not airborne. Even if someone sick with the virus somehow ended up on a plane, it would not circulate via the air. That means the average traveler has next to no chance of catching the disease. The vast majority of Ebola cases have been among caregivers, whether health professionals or family members, who took care of Ebola patients themselves. Unless you make a habit of touching sick people or spending time in Congolese hospitals, you’re not at risk. No tourist has ever contracted Ebola.
4. Travelers come from places with strong health systems.
The virus moves quickly in some parts of Africa because they lack the infrastructure to contain it. Resources as simple as running water for hand washing or infection-prevention training for healthcare workers can be the deciding factor in whether or not the disease will be contained. International travel is dominated by tourists from countries with good sanitation and hygiene, coming to places with reliable infrastructure. That’s why West Africa saw over 28,000 Ebola cases, but the disease was only transmitted to two people on American soil.
5. The response is better this time.
The global health community’s sluggish response to West Africa’s outbreak added fuel to the fire. It doesn’t want to make the same mistake again. Major international health organizations are already on the ground in DRC to contain the virus. A strategy called “ring vaccination” — administering the new Ebola vaccine to everyone who has had physical contact with those who fall ill — is already underway, and experimental treatments are being given to patients.
6. Prevention measures are in place.
Travelers coming from Ebola-affected areas are thoroughly screened and monitored. In the United States, for example, returning health workers submit to an in-depth interview at customs and are required to contact public health authorities every day for three weeks. If they experience any symptoms, they will report to the nearest designated hospital with a team trained to manage suspected Ebola patients. It is extremely unlikely that a traveler from DRC would slip through the cracks in this system.
7. Fear will only make the outbreak worse.
The quickest way to stop Ebola in its tracks is to send teams of experts to do what they do best. These experts will leave their families and jobs to risk their own health in order to protect others. During the West African outbreak, these people were stigmatized by those who didn’t understand the facts of the disease. Isolating and stigmatizing Ebola responders makes health workers less likely to volunteer to help, which only prolongs the outbreak. And hysteria in the news makes travelers from Ebola-affected areas ashamed and more likely to hide symptoms, putting others at risk. Facts, not fear, are the public’s most effective defense against Ebola.