keep calm red grungy stamp on white background

I have thus far resisted writing about Ebola as there is plenty being said and written on this topic. However it seems that we are at a crossroads in the rhetorical war between the fear mongers and those presenting the facts. There are some critical facts that can get easily lost in whipped up fear.

Firstly Ebola is not a new condition. This is also not the first “outbreak”. It has however, as far as we know, claimed more lives than previous outbreaks. Yet compared to malaria (one death every 30 seconds) and HIV, the number of fatalities is very small.

There is a very important issue to understand with Ebola. It is highly infectious but not contagious. This sounds like medical double speak but is not. When something is infectious it means that if you contract it, you will likely get very sick. If something is contagious it is easily spread. The common cold is the exact opposite of Ebola. It is not infectious but highly contagious.

So if a person contracts Ebola they have a high chance of getting very sick and a high chance of death. But the likelihood of contracting Ebola is extremely low. It is not spread by droplets through the air like a cold is. It can only be transmitted through direct physical contact with bodily fluids. This is why health workers are most at risk.

So unless you have physically touched the body fluids (like blood) of a person who is infected with Ebola you cannot get it. Just riding on the same train or being in the same room is not a problem.

Furthermore it can survive for only a very short time off the body and is easily removed by simple hygiene like hand washing.

Hence we will never see an epidemic in Western countries because of our living conditions and standards of hygiene. The contrast to poor countries in West Africa is stark.

Those crying out about threats to western countries are simply fear mongering. Attempts to stop flights to countries where Ebola exist will achieve nothing. What would be helpful is genuine support for health workers who are at the front line. And I would add that conscripting people to go is also not appropriate.

The WHO seems to have been asleep at the wheel. Its primary role should be cross border health issues and assisting countries that lack resources to manage outbreaks of disease. In March, Medecins Sans Frontiers were warning of a growing number of cases. The WHO was not concerned as late as July 30 but suddenly discovered a problem on August 8.

Yet in mid October the head of the WHO was able to find time to attend a five day anti tobacco conference in Russia. Smoking is a contributor to many illnesses but is a matter for individual countries to manage. Russia does not need the help of the WHO. Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone need help.

Communicable disease (infections), which can spread across borders, needs a global view. Non-communicable ones (including those smoking related) do not.

The other aside is that effort is going into an Ebola vaccine. Given the small numbers of cases is this really a good use of resources. And even if one is developed will it be available in Africa where it is needed. Or will it be sold to westerners with a story of the threat Ebola poses to them?

Containing the spread of Ebola and treating its victims as best we can, is crucial. However it is far from the biggest health threat even in Africa and is not a threat to the developed world. Headlines may create a different impression.

This is a time to keep calm and not be buy into fear and hysteria.