With media headlines dominated by Ebola and enterovirus 68, how concerned should we be? We went to virus expert Dr. Griffith Parks, director of the College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, to explain what science knows about the two viruses, how they’re spread and how they can be prevented. Ebola and enterovirus 68 are two very different viruses at the opposite end of the virus spectrum, Dr. Parks said. Ebola is very rare, enterovirus very common. In fact, the reason the latest virus is called 68 is because there are at least 70 other related varieties in which we regularly come in contact.
Ebola is spread through overt exposure with an infected person’s bodily fluids such as blood and vomit. You can’t get Ebola by walking past someone at the store or brushing up against them in a crowd. The virus is not transmitted through the air and does not survive long on surfaces. Like HIV-AIDS, Ebola can only be transmitted by direct contact with bodily fluids that contain the virus.
The virus has struck heavily in West Africa; the first confirmed case in the United States was from a Liberian visitor. In that impoverished area of the world, Ebola patients are often getting care – and dying — at home, where there is virtually no infrastructure like sanitary masks, trained medical teams or even disinfectant to help stop the spread of the disease. Because of that, families are often living in direct, frequent contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids.
U.S. hospitals, on the other hand, provide that infrastructure, and the Centers for Disease Control has established guidelines for people entering the U.S. from other countries and hospitals if sick patients arrive with possible symptoms. But as we have seen in the latest U.S. case, infections can spread even in a hospital setting as healthcare workers come in contact with the bodily fluids of their patients. While hospitals have strong guidelines on cross contamination, tragically, infections can occur. Importantly, for the vast majority of us, unless you’ve just traveled to West Africa, avoiding such contact is not a problem.
If you have recently traveled to that part of the world, the CDC advises that you monitor your health for 21 days:
- Take your temperature every morning and evening.
- Watch for other symptoms, including severe headache, muscle or stomach pain, vomiting, diarrhea, or unexplained bleeding or bruising.
- If your temperature is above 101.5° or you have any Ebola signs or symptoms, seek medical care immediately. But call and tell your doctor about your recent travel and symptoms before going to a medical office or hospital. Advance notice will help the doctor care for you and protect others.
- If you are sick, limit your contact with other people and avoid public transportation. Don’t go to work or other public activities until you have been medically evaluated.
Admittedly, with so much news about Ebola, it’s easy to panic, Dr. Parks said, and easy to assume that any time you have fever and nausea, you have Ebola. Internal bleeding is one important symptom that separates Ebola from other more common virus symptoms. For a QA and other in-depth information on Ebola, visit the CDC at http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/outbreaks/2014-west-africa/qa.html
Also in the news is enterovirus 68, which has hospitalized children across the country and has caused at least one death. In contrast to Ebola, which you are very unlikely to be exposed to, this virus is much more common but is also only deadly in rare instances. The virus causes runny nose, sneezing, cough, body aches and mouth blisters and is spread like the common cold – via the air, contact with other infected people and by touching an infected surface. The vast majority of people who get it recover relatively easily; those that suffer serious or deadly reactions typically have had an underlying health condition like asthma. How to avoid the virus? Take the same precautions we use with any seasonal flu outbreak:
- Wash your hands with soap and water several times a day for at least 20 seconds
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that are regularly touched by different people, such as toys, doorknobs, counters, computers and phones.
- Avoid shaking hands, kissing, hugging and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick.
- Stay home from work or school if you feel unwell. If your symptoms become serious, get to an emergency room.
In short, do what you can to avoid spreading germs. Get your flu shot. Wash your hands frequently and especially before you touch your face, eyes or mouth. Stay home when you are sick. Avoid panic. Seek out reliable scientific information on these conditions. Those in the health profession continue to monitor the situation and we’ll share any changes or additional recommendations for prevention as they become available.