If Ebola Isn't Very Contagious, Why Are Healthcare Workers Getting It?
If Ebola doesn't spread easily in the general public, then how did the African epidemic occur? There are a few fundamental differences that contribute to the contagiousness of Ebola in Africa.
In some African nations, it is quite common to care for very ill (even dying) relatives at home. Sometimes this is done because there aren't healthcare facilities nearby or the available facilities have been overwhelmed. Sometimes it's because of fear or mistrust of healthcare workers and facilities. Sometimes it's just a deeply rooted cultural practice. For a whole host of reasons, many Ebola patients are cared for in the home, drastically increasing the risk for spread in the general public.
Here's another key difference: Here in the United States, we have very little contact with dead bodies. However, in some African cultures, friends and family prepare and bury their dead themselves. There is often touching and kissing of the body. Since Ebola levels are extraordinarily high in dead bodies, these practices are very risky.
Unless you care for someone who is extremely ill with Ebola, your risk of contracting the virus is very small. Having contact with someone who is just starting to show symptoms is unlikely to result in transmission of the virus.
Case in point: Think about Thomas Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States. The people near him when he was mildly ill did not get Ebola. Instead, it was the nurses who cared for him when he was extremely sick (and dying) in the hospital who ended up with the virus.
Yes, it's possible for someone to transmit the virus before they are sick enough to go to the hospital, but it's just not likely.
What can you do to lower your chances even further? Learn and use good infection control and prevention practices. Wash your hands and teach your kids to wash their hands. Carry hand sanitizer for times when hand washing isn't possible. Try to train yourself to break the habit of constantly touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Use gloves when cleaning up bodily fluid messes, and be sure to disinfect surfaces contaminated by bodily fluids. These practices are simply smart ideas for everyday life. If you and your family do these simple things, you'll all likely stay much healthier.