Health officials explain Ebola

The largest Ebola outbreak in history is prompting discussion across the U.S. about whether the country is ready to fight the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control confirmed the first domestic case in Dallas Sept. 30 as Liberian native Thomas Eric Duncan, who later died.

Gov. Robert Bentley and State Health Officer Don Williamson held a news conference Oct. 6 to discuss Alabama’s plan of action for handling potential outbreaks.

“As with all types of emergencies, preparedness is essential to an effective response,” Bentley said. “We are making plans to protect the safety and well-being of all Alabamians through public health and our health care providers.”

A second case of the disease has been confirmed in one of the Texas health care workers who treated the first patient.

Many people ask what exactly Ebola is and whether they are at risk for being infected with the disease.

What is Ebola?

Ebola, also know as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a rare, deadly disease caused by infection associated with one of four Ebola virus strains known to affect humans.

There currently is no known cure for the disease.

Infected persons experience severe headache, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, unexplained bleeding or bruising, and stomach pain within 21 days after exposure, according to the Department of Public Health.

However, symptoms typically develop between six and 10 days after exposure, Williamson said.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health reports as many as 90 percent of Ebola patients die — usually from low blood pressure rather than blood loss.

People who recover from the disease develop antibodies that last for at least 10 years, according to the CDC.

Who is at risk?

Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone are the only three countries where the disease is currently considered widespread.

“The reality is, you need to have been to one of those three countries and really have had contact with someone who has Ebola to be at risk for contracting the disease,” said Area Health Officer Karen Landers. “People who care for Ebola patients are also at risk.”

Landers said because Ebola is not airborne, a person would need to have contact with blood or bodily fluids from someone who is infected to contract the disease.

There is no evidence mosquitos or other insects can transmit Ebola virus. Only mammals have shown the ability to become infected with and spread the disease, according to the CDC.

“We’re not talking just sitting next to someone or in a seat they sat in,” Landers said. “At this point in time there has been no decision to restrict travel.”

Is it likely to affect the Shoals?

Officials said no.

Although the disease has entered the U.S., outbreak is not likely, especially for Alabama, Landers said.

The CDC reported epidemic proportions of the disease are virtually impossible for developed nations.

“Our risk is extremely low for outbreak,” Landers said. “We have few people in this area that have been to countries where the disease is widespread.”

“That doesn’t mean our chance is zero, but we are taking a proactive stance.”

What should someone with Ebola-like symptoms do?

With flu season getting into swing, people could experience symptoms similar to those common of Ebola, however that does not mean the person has the disease, Williamson said.

If a person is sick, he or she should go to the doctor as normal but should alert the health care provider if he or she recently traveled to West Africa, Landers said.

“We’re asking about travel in the last 21 days,” she said. “We’re specifically asking doctors to ask those questions.”

Physicians and health care providers try to treat patients based on the patient’s history, she said.

“We are going to have influenza,” she said, “but Ebola is extremely unlikely.”

How can spread of the disease be prevented?

Experimental vaccines and treatments for Ebola are under development, but they have not yet been fully tested for safety or effectiveness, according to the CDC.

Although there is no cure for the disease, people can protect themselves and others by washing their hands often with soap and water or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.

What do students think?

Pre-med senior Matthew Wesley Cooper said the media is making Ebola into a bigger issue than what it really is.

“It’s entertainment because that’s what people want to read about,” Cooper said. “When it comes to infectious disease, the CDC is the go-to resource.If they say there’s no chance of an outbreak in the U.S., there’s no chance. They don’t downplay the one thing they are responsible for — controlling disease.”

Landers said Alabama has been preparing for the disease since the summer when the outbreak struck many African countries.

“Alabama’s hospitals take very seriously any new threat to patients, their families and to health care workers, particularly the latest threat from Ebola,” said J. Michael Horsley, president of the Alabama Hospital Association. “However, it’s important to note that hospitals prepare for the unknown every day.”

A toolkit on Ebola for Alabama health care providers and the community is available online at

“In the event that Ebola spreads to Alabama, we are ready and we are prepared to respond,” Bentley said.