How scary is Ebola?

Ebola is scary. (Hypothesis: The fewer syllables a disease has, the scarier it is at a gut/click-bait level. For example, plague compared to malaria.) And it's true that the recent outbreak of Ebola in Guinea is objectively unusual by virtue of how widespread it is throughout the country. Generally, Ebola is relatively easy to quarantine off and tends to get itself stuck in rural areas.

But Ebola is not a disease that travelers from Western countries should be particularly concerned about. Nor, for that matter, is it even a disease that people living in Guinea, and the other African countries where Ebola has popped up, should be particularly concerned about. Ebola is scary. But, relatively speaking, Ebola kills far fewer people and has far less of an impact on the lives of ordinary people than endemic diseases like tuberculosis, the aforementioned malaria, and any number of intestinal diseases that cause childhood diarrhea. The CBC has a nice story that focuses in on this perspective. You should read it.

Thanks to Tom Zeller!

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  1. There's always the discussion that Ebola burns out quickly - it incapacitates victims so suddenly and well that it can't spread.

    Incubation is 2-21 days.

    However ... it has all sorts of infectious tricks up its sleeve. Bodily fluids, obviously, which in my uneducated way I take to also mean aerosal transmission from coughing. Vomiting and diarrhoea spread it, which is a massive issue if a child gets it and is in a communal setting.

    It could do better, but I think it's bad enough that if it comes to my town, I'm heading out of town.

    The WHO's message is basically quarantine, quarantine, quarantine.

    That's why everyone's a little concerned about it getting into a large city.

  2. The SARS outbreak in the Toronto area was way way more dangerous. The disease was airborne, extremely contagious, and it was able to kill doctors and nurses even in a modern hospital setting despite the staff was trying to take extra precautions. But it was so nasty that the epidemic burned itself out. I don't think many people realize what a close call that was.

    The other important factor (not mentioned in the article) is the disease being spread by infectious people who do not have symptoms, or else they have minor symptoms. AIDS, TB, hepatitis, and influenza kill huge numbers of people, but the disease is mostly spread by people who don't know they have the disease. This can be due to a lengthy incubation period before symptoms appear (AIDS) or a low rate of mortality (flu and hepatitis).

    With hepatitis, there can be carriers who recover but are still infectious. Having single "Typhoid Mary" carrier makes a great drama, and it's often a senseless plot point in epidemic movies. Once a million people are infected, finding "Patient Zero" really isn't going to make the problem go away.

  3. "Hypothesis: The fewer syllables a disease has, the scarier it is at a gut/click-bait level."


  4. You mean, the disease that killed 50-100 MILLION people -- approximately 3-5% of the world's population -- in 1918? It's scarier than you think.

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