Think for Yourself: Ebola

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As the mainstream media takes a breath and prepares to launch into the next scare campaign, IA critical thinker John Turnbull takes a look at the science behind the hysteria.

YOU’VE ALL HEARD of Ebola, right?

The highly contagious disease that kills over 90% of people who get it? Originating in Africa, it has the chance to cause a global pandemic comparable to the Black Death.

You know, they made that documentary about it — Outbreak.

The only problem with that is … most of it is bollocks.

Like this fine example:

Let’s start at the beginning. What is Ebola?

Formerly known as Ebola haemorrhagic fever, Ebola virus disease is a severe, often fatal, disease in humans.

The virus is transmissible via bodily fluids, particularly blood. Initial symptoms include fever, weakness, muscle pain and headache. This progresses to vomiting, diarrhea, impaired organ function and in some cases internal and external bleeding.

Originating in Africa, the natural host is thought to be fruit bats of the pteropodidae family, although Ebola has also been found in chimps, gorillas, forest antelope and porcupines. The incubation period for Ebola is between 2 and 21 days, which is the time between exposure to the virus and the appearance of symptoms.

No vaccine is currently available, although a number of experimental treatments are in development, according to the World Health Organisation.

If you catch Ebola, what are your chances of survival?

That depends on what strain of the virus you get and the quality of medical care to which you have access. The Ebola Zaire strain is the most deadly, with the much quoted 90%+ mortality rate (based on the original outbreak in Zaire among a community without access to modern medicine). Ebola Sudan – the strain that is believed to be responsible for around 1,400 deaths in the current outbreak – has a mortality rate of around 53% (again based on patients receiving little to no medical treatment).

If you’re stuck in a remote area with a witch doctor telling you that a good leeching will cure you, your chances of death are probably on the wrong side of fifty-fifty.

If, on the other hand, you have access to hydration, modern medicine and competent care by qualified professionals, your chances are significantly better.

However, there isn’t really enough data in this second group to say exactly how much better — which brings us to the question of how contagious Ebola is.

While Ebola is highly infectious, it is not highly contagious. The reason for this lies in how the virus spreads. Ebola is transmitted via blood or other bodily fluids. If you manage to avoid getting a patient’s blood, saliva or vomit in any or your orificies, you’re not going to get Ebola. Because of this, once medical controls are introduced the spread of the disease is not that hard to control.

But what about Outbreak, man? What about Contagion!? Put it in a context I can understand, FFS!

You know that movies aren’t real, right?

While both of these are entertaining disaster flicks, their grasp of science is somewhat limited. Far be it from me to highlight the litany of errors contained therein ‒ they’ve been well documented elsewhere ‒ I’d just like to highlight one key flaw in both films.

The hook in Contagion is that the Ebola-like virus mutates to become airborne and so starts to spread like wildfire and kills everyone it meets. Patient Zero is Gwyneth Paltrow, who subsequently spreads the virus to her illicit lover, business contacts and family. Thanks, mom.

Something remarkably similar happens in Outbreak, where the Ebola-like ‘Motaba Virus’ becomes airborne and kills 100% of the people it infects.

The problem with this is not that Ebola could not mutate and become airborne — that is totally within the realms of scientific possibility.

The issue is that when viruses mutate, they usually become less, rather than more, deadly. The evolutionary advantage to this is that the host lives longer and thus gives the virus more chance to spread — a virus that kills its host immediately has less evolutionary advantage than one that keeps the host alive for long enough to spread the virus to other carriers.

Someone sneezed on me at the airport. I feel like I’m getting sick…

Based on the current available evidence, Ebola is not contagious in the pre-symptomatic stage.

So, unless the person that sneezed on you was bleeding from the eyes, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.

Unless they had Influenza, of course, which is far more dangerous than Ebola.

But you knew that, right?

You mentioned experimental cures what about homeopathy? Or essential oils?

There is no evidence that homeopathy can treat or cure Ebola, except from the perspective that patients need to be kept hydrated, so drinking clean water is a good thing.

Essential oils might make you smell slightly nicer, but they’re not going to cure a virus. To believe that diluted snakes venom or Thieves oil can cure Ebola is akin to believing in magic beans.

Ignorance is part of the problem.

For a far more detailed analysis of this issue check out Neurologica.

But I’ve heard that this is the worst Ebola outbreak in history!

It is. The worst Ebola outbreak in history has killed about 2,000 people.

As a comparison, the influenza pandemic of 1918 killed between 20 and 40 million people. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide die from HIV related conditions every year and malaria is generally credited with killing over 100 million people per annum.

There is no doubt that Ebola is a serious problem in underdeveloped regions, such as West Africa and that the prevalence of air travel increases the potential for the rapid spread of infection.

Taking that into account, you are far more likely to die from heart disease, cancer or the flu than Ebola. But you’re probably best to stay away from bush meat, if you can avoid it.

Don’t believe the scaremongering. Think for yourself.

With thanks to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe episode #474.

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