The latest headlines about the Ebola epidemic read like something out of a Hollywood medical thriller. Every day brings more urgent news about new infections, botched protocols, scrambles to disinfect airplanes and, on Friday (October 17) the naming of an "Ebola Czar" and an "Ebola SWAT Team" to handle the U.S. response.
So does that mean now is the time to panic?
The virus has killed more than 4,000 in West Africa, sickened more than twice that number in the region and led to two domestic deaths to date. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention seems to have made some missteps in the wake of the infection of Dallas nurse Amber Vinson.
Still, in the wake of those headlines, according to experts, you should be keeping calm. And here's why:
The chances you'll catch Ebola are pretty slim
"The CDC remains confident that Ebola is not a significant public health threat to the United States," a spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told MTV News. "It is not transmitted easily, and it does not spread from people who are not ill."
Dr. Glenn Mathisen, the chief of infectious disease services at the Olive View-UCLA Medical Center concurred, added that burial practices in West Africa -- which include handling and washing the body and pouring fluids over it -- that differ from Western traditions are one reason there is a higher rate of transmission there.
So far, the CDC noted, there have been two cases of Ebola infection in the U.S., while more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for the flu each year.
Unless you're around someone with active signs of Ebola you should be fine
Mathisen said Ebola is not highly infectious at the early stage, but becomes so when the patient begins bleeding and having diarrhea. "The first couple of days symptoms include fever, headache, muscle ache and pain, which feels like the flu," he said. "Then several days later you develop diarrhea, which is more infectious."
Ebola has a 21-day incubation period, meaning that it could take up to three weeks to develop symptoms after exposure.
Ebola is not as infectious as the flu or a cold.
"Ebola is not like flu. It's not like measles, it's not like the common cold," said the CDC spokesperson. "It's not as spreadable and it's not as infectious as those conditions. Ebola is spread through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with blood or body fluids (including but not limited to urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of a person who is sick with Ebola and objects (like needles and syringes) that have been contaminated with the virus."
You're probably not going to get Ebola on a plane.
Since outreach to hundreds of people who were on flights with infected nurse Amber Vinson (or who flew on the planes she was on), questions have been raised about the safety of air travel.
Some members of Congress have suggested a ban on travel to the U.S. from West Africa. Mathisen, who does not have first-hand knowledge of the Ebola cases in the U.S. to date, said a two-to-three week quarantine before traveling to the U.S. from affected areas makes sense to him. President Obama has so far rejected calls for a quarantine or flight ban.
Wearing a mask and gloves all the time is overkill.
"No, absolutely not," said Mathisen when asked if people should start donning surgical masks and rubber gloves when they leave the house.
The CDD adds, however: "Unlike respiratory illnesses like measles or chickenpox, which can be transmitted by virus particles that remain suspended in the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes, Ebola is transmitted by direct contact with body fluids of a person who has symptoms of Ebola disease. Although coughing and sneezing are not common symptoms of Ebola, if a symptomatic patient with Ebola coughs or sneezes on someone, and saliva or mucus come into contact with that person’s eyes, nose or mouth, these fluids may transmit the disease."
If you're around someone who might be infected, washing hands is probably enough.
"It's not felt that if you got secretions on your hands [Ebola] would tunnel through your skin and get into you," said Mathisen. If you touch your eyes or mouth, however, it could. Simple hand washing should be adequate.
Some additional tips from the CDC:
1) DO wash your hands often with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
2) DO NOT touch the blood or body fluids (like urine, feces, saliva, vomit, sweat, and semen) of people who are sick.
3) DO NOT handle items that may have come in contact with a sick person’s blood or body fluids, like clothes, bedding, needles, or medical equipment.
4) Do NOT touch the body of someone who has died of Ebola.
If someone on the subway next to you is coughing, it's OK to move, but you don't have to rush to the hospital.
Mathisen said it's "extremely unlikely" that you'll catch Ebola by sitting next to someone with the virus. "Is it safe to sit next to someone on an airplane if they are asymptomatic [not showing symptoms]? Yes," he said. "If they're having diarrhea and have a fever, there could be a risk... But what we believe at the moment is that it is only transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids. There is no current evidence that by walking by someone or being in the same room you will get it."
Unless you travel to West Africa, chances are slim you'll be anywhere near Ebola.
According to the CDC, the countries reporting widespread transmission are in the Western African nations of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
OK, it sounds like the risk is low, but that doesn't mean we're not worrying.
While 40 percent of Americans recently surveyed said they were worried that they or an immediate family member might catch the disease, those numbers are the same as the level of concern about previous viral outbreaks, according to ABC News/The Washington Post pollers.
That same poll also showed that 65 percent are concerned about a potential domestic Ebola epidemic, while 64 percent think the government should be doing more.
There isn't a cure for Ebola, but the symptoms are curable.
At present there is no FDA-approved vaccine for Ebola, according to the CDC, but there are experimental treatments under development, but they have not yet been fully tested for safety or effectiveness.
"It is curable, but the [treatments] we have have not is more about preventing symptoms," said Mathisen. "The good news is that the two health care workers who were cared for at Emery [University Hospital] I would say are cured and there's no evidence of secondary infection."