The Ebola outbreak, which has killed 729 people as of Sunday, may be confined to countries in West Africa, but fear about the often-fatal virus has spread to the U.S. Today, the second of two infected Americans—Nancy Writebol, a 59-year-old missionary—arrived at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital for treatment (33-year-old doctor Kent Brantly was evacuated over the weekend). The return of the pair has sparked a large amount of concern over the possibility of a stateside outbreak of Ebola. Donald Trump prompted a heated discussion on social media when he posted this to Twitter:
The U.S. cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go to far away places to help out are great-but must suffer the consequences!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 2, 2014
But how likely is it that we’ll face an outbreak here in the U.S.? Let’s break down the facts:
It’s harder for Ebola to spread than you might think. Though it’s one of the deadliest diseases on the planet (with a mortality rate of up to 90 percent), Ebola is not as contagious as airborne pathogens like the flu. The virus is only transmitted through direct contact with a patient’s bodily fluids, or from objects (like needles) that carry those fluids—that’s why healthcare workers are at an increased risk. Touching money, a computer keyboard, or another object that an infected person has touched will not spread the virus.
Procedures are in place to help prevent it from arriving on a plane. That doomsday scenario where an infected passenger coughs on a plane and transmits the virus to everyone on board? Not possible. For one thing, “It is highly unlikely that someone suffering such symptoms would feel well enough to travel,” the International Air Travel Association said in a statement—and Ebola is typically contagious only when patients are exhibiting signs of the illness. “People who have Ebola are not walking around on the street,” said Amesh Adalja, a member of the public health committee of the Infectious Disease Society of America. “They are very, very sick and pretty much confined to a hospital and to a bed.”
In the rare event that it does occur, the virus is not airborne—meaning that unless you are sitting right next to an infected passenger, you would not be at risk. CNN also reports that “when flight crew members encounter a passenger with symptoms that they suspect could be Ebola, they keep the sick person away from other passengers. They’ve been instructed to wear disposable gloves and to provide the sickened person with a surgical mask to prevent fluids from spreading.”
Researchers are working on promising treatments. Currently there is no vaccine or effective treatment for Ebola, although several are being tested. The two American patients are receiving an experimental treatment known as ZMapp, which was rushed to Emory University Hospital and has not yet been tested in human patients or undergone a formal FDA approval process. Still, experts are cautiously optimistic about the drug. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly how it works,” immunology professor Erica Ollmann Saphire, Ph.D., told WebMD. “But it seems to neutralize the virus.” Clinical trials in humans are expected to begin next year.