Don’t panic about ebola and public transit

October 20, 2014

Panic over Ebola seems to be spreading faster than the virus itself is, with mass hypochondria reports now making the news. But how dangerous is the virus, and is it even possible to catch it on public transportation? As Yahoo reports, Ebola can’t be passed through casual contact, and, although its symptoms can be flu-like, it is not an airborne illness.

Subway passengers with surgical masks

Don’t panic about ebola on public transportation. There are more dangerous and widespread diseases out there. Image from Evan Blaser.

“Even though there’s been a lot of news in the last 48 hours, the virus itself has not changed,” Dr. Eden Wells, a clinical associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan School of Public Health told Yahoo. “It still requires that you have close contact with body fluids of a person with Ebola.” Even direct contact with bodily fluids does not mean, thankfully, that everyone who has made contact will be affected. (Ebola victim Thomas Eric Duncan’s family, for example, took care of him before he was diagnosed and have thus far shown no symptoms even now, towards the end of their necessitated 21-day quarantine.)

Yet Ebola patients are being told to avoid public transportation as a matter of course. “I think it’s really an abundance of caution more than it is a true need — we really don’t think that simply sitting on the same airplane would result in transmission,” Dr. Art Reingold, head of epidemiology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health told Yahoo. “But this is such a deadly virus, and there is so much public and political concern that I think people are going to err on the side of caution, rather than be perceived as under-responding.”

So, what do you need to know about Ebola prevention and public transportation? We’ve collected a few guidelines. (If you work in an environment where you may be exposed to the virus, or if you have any other questions, be sure to consult your doctor directly, and learn more about the virus on the CDC’s site. Travelers can also learn more on the CDC’s dedicated traveler information section.)

  •  Avoid all bodily fluids, which include blood, vomit, saliva, feces, semen, sweat and tears. “Which means that you could, in theory, catch the virus via sweat on an airplane armrest, for example,” notes Yahoo. “If [the sick person] is touching surfaces and they’re contaminated by their own fluid, then you contact the same surface before the fluid dries, there is a risk of transmission there,” Wells explains. “We never say never.”
  • Avoid touching your face. Ebola, for which there is no vaccine, is transmitted via eyes, nose, and mouth, or breaks in the skin that can be so small as to be imperceptible. (Cover any obvious cuts with a clean bandage.)
  • Stay clean. Wash your hands frequently, and for at least 20 seconds each time. Unable to wash? Use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol until you can soap up again.
  • Avoid sick people. Sitting on a flight next to someone visibly ill? Let your flight attendant know. If he or she is suffering from a particular illness, the person may be removed from the plane — or you may be moved to another seat.
  • Avoid contact with wild animals as well as handling wild meat, as potential virus carriers include fruit bats, porcupines, pigs, forest antelope, monkeys, gorillas and chimpanzees. (For most of us, this isn’t too big a problem.)
  • Above all, stay calm. Local and federal officials are urging the public to remain clear-headed. “Our real threats at this point are the diseases we have been fighting for the last twenty years,” says Diana Silver, a public health professor at New York University told Men’s Journal. “And while we have made some progress in this country about addressing some of these problems, the scale of those problems is far greater than the current threat of Ebola. The CDC has done a good job of communicating exactly how people can get affected by Ebola while also attempting to put in perspective the relative risk.”

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