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

Keeping it in Perspective

Another thing to keep in mind are the statistics of Ebola. Even in Africa, Ebola is hardly the biggest threat to human health. Last year, 130,000 people died from measles, another 60,000 from tetanus, 750,000 died from dysentery, and a staggering 1.17 million from malaria. The CDC reports that every year, 250,000 to 500,000 people die from the flu. Meanwhile Ebola (at the time of this writing) has resulted in less than 1,000 deaths so far in 2014.

While all pathogen-related death is tragic, you’re much more likely to die from flu, dysentery, or measles than you are Ebola. So before you head off to your underground Ebola shelter, think about stopping by the drugstore to get your flu shot.

What Makes Ebola so Scary?

Aside from the fact that it has pretty horrific symptoms and a relatively high mortality rate, one of the main things that makes Ebola dangerous is that we don't know where its natural reservoir is. The natural reservoir of a pathogen is where it lives when it's not infecting humans.

For example, we know that malaria inhabits, but doesn't kill, mosquitos. It can live inside mosquitos for a long time, and then spread to humans through mosquito bites. Rabies lives inside of bats, foxes, raccoons, and skunks when it isn't causing trouble for humans. Cholera lives quite happily in plankton and shellfish, doing neither creature any harm.

But nobody is sure where Ebola lives when it isn't infecting humans. Fruit bats and certain types of monkeys are a couple of likely sources. A less likely source is a certain type of crab that gets eaten by a certain type of monkey.

The reason malaria isn't an issue in the US is because we know the natural reservoir (mosquitos), and for a long time have taken measures to counteract that fact (with window screens, treating standing water, etc.) But since we don't understand where Ebola comes from, we don't know what to do to prevent Ebola outbreaks.


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Photos of Africa and Ebola map, Scientist, and Sneezing woman courtesy of Shutterstock..


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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.