Why Travelers Should Not Freak Out About the Ebola Virus Outbreak (Again)
The Ebola virus is back in the headlines — again. After a year-long battle with the disease in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the World Health Organization recently declared the outbreak to be a global health emergency. As of July 23, 2019, 1,668 deaths due to the virus have been confirmed. The recent death of a priest infected by Ebola in Goma, a city of two million people on the border with Rwanda, has sparked panic over the spread of the disease.
With flights connecting every corner of the world, many fear that this deadly virus could wreak havoc on international airports. The West African epidemic from 2014 to 2016 — which touched nine countries and killed over 11,000 people — triggered hysteria around the world. 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. Nothing has changed for tourists.
The declaration of a global health emergency is meant as a call to action for the international community to support the outbreak response — not a warning for travelers to stay home. Even the chairman of the WHO’s emergency committee explained that it should not be used “as an excuse to impose trade or travel restrictions, which would have a negative impact on the response.” Unless you are working for an international health organization, nothing has changed for you.
2. Ebola isn’t new.
Outbreaks of the hemorrhagic fever have been occurring in Africa since 1976. (Ebola first emerged in the DRC and the country has faced 10 outbreaks since then.) The disease just didn’t make major headlines until 2014, when the West African epidemic got out of control and became more widespread.
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.
3. 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 the 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.
Neighboring Uganda faces the most risk, but only three cases have been reported there (and all were successfully contained).
4. Ebola is hard to catch.
Despite how it may appear on the news, Ebola is not the world’s most contagious disease. In fact, this year, more people have already died from measles than from Ebola, The Guardian reported. 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.
5. 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 handwashing 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, and 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.
6. 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 have been on the ground in the DRC to contain the virus from day one. A strategy called “ring vaccination” — administering the new Ebola vaccine to everyone who has had physical contact with those who fall ill — is underway, and experimental treatments are being given to patients.
This outbreak has proved difficult to extinguish because it’s centered in provinces of the DRC that are active war zones, with violent rebel groups and mobile refugee populations. Still, the disease has been contained to this relatively small area.
7. 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.
The highest likelihood of the virus spreading beyond the DRC is found along the land border with Uganda — but experienced health workers there are trained to thoroughly monitor and vaccinate anyone at risk. It is extremely unlikely that a traveler from the DRC would slip through the cracks in this system and end up posing a threat to tourists.
8. 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 2014-2016 West African outbreak, these people were stigmatized by those who didn’t understand the facts of the disease. Isolating and labeling 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.
This article was updated on July 29, 2019.