Should You Worry About the Ebola Outbreak?

Ask Science explains what exactly Ebola is, and breaks down some of the misinformation being spread by news outlets. 

Lee Falin, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #111

By now, you’re probably either sick of hearing about Ebola, or terrified to leave your house. While it's true that Ebola is a pretty horrible disease, you might be surprised to know just how much misinformation there is out in the media about the current outbreak.>

Airborne vs Airborne

One of the big areas of confusion is whether or not Ebola can be spread by “airborne transmission." One reason for this confusion is that not everyone means the same thing when they say “airborne transmission."

To many epidemiologists (people that study diseases and how they spread), "airborne transmission" means that a pathogen can survive for long periods of time in the air. For example, the flu virus can float around in the air for two days or longer. If you have the flu, and go sneeze in the closet, and then your friend goes into that closet the next day, there's a chance he could get the flu.

In contrast, some people refer to "airborne transmission" as meaning, "you can get sick if a sick person sneezes on you directly.”

Many media websites are spreading the report that some people are suspicious that Ebola could be spread by airborne transmission--but which kind of airborne are they talking about, and is it true?

If you read the "Ebola and airborne transmission" studies that are mentioned in the news (which I’m willing to bet most news writers haven’t), nearly every study cited that discusses the possibility of airborne transmission points to a study done in 1995 on some monkeys.

In that study, there were some monkeys that had Ebola sitting in cages on one side of the room, and some monkeys that didn’t have Ebola sitting in cages on the other side of the room. At a certain point, the scientists noticed that two of the Ebola-free monkeys had somehow caught Ebola.

Before you go out and buy a gas mask, though, pay attention to the discussion section of the paper, in which the scientists state that the monkeys were most likely infected by eating the "secretions or excretions" of the infected monkeys, or rubbing it into their eyes. Nowhere do they state that this infection occured by simply breathing the same air as the sick monkeys.


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About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.