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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. 

By
Lee Falin, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #111

A more recent study that is sometimes pointed to (but not actually read) by the news media shows that there is a "suspicion that the virus was transmitted by airborne particles."

However, this wasn't because the study showed any proof of that, but because out of the 315 cases they looked at, 12 of the people couldn't figure out where they were exposed. The study goes on to say that there have never been any reports of airborne exposure of Ebola in humans, and that the only evidence ever of this is between monkeys in laboratories. They then cite the one study I mentioned earlier.

So, yes--if someone with Ebola sneezes on you, or throws their excretions into your eye, there is a chance you'll get Ebola. If someone with Ebola in the sporting good aisle of Wal-Mart sneezes on a basketball, and you're over in hardware, there is zero chance you'll catch Ebola. (Unless you run and grab that basketball and rub it on your eye, which you probably shouldn't do even if the sneezer didn't have Ebola.)

There’s Something in the Air

The influenza virus can survive for two days or longer floating around in the air. Some media outlets are reporting that Ebola can survive several days outside of a host. Most of these “facts” come from places like the MSDS pathogen safety data sheet for Ebola. If you read that document, you’ll see it says: "SURVIVAL OUTSIDE HOST: The virus can survive in liquid or dried material for a number of days (23)."

But that little number 23 doesn’t mean Ebola can survive for 23 days. Instead, it refers to footnote number 23, which points to a study where this information supposedly came from.

Once again, if you read the actual study, you’ll find that it says that the virus can exist in dead ape carcasses for only several days.

Every other website that has exact figures for survivability "outside of the host" just copies the same exact text. (See this one, for example.)

I'm not aware of any actual studies showing that Ebola can survive for any significant time outside of a host.

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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.