We’ve been hearing a lot about Ebola recently in the media and it can be quite scary but it is important to understand the facts, and when we do it might not seem quite so bad for those of us in Western countries, who aren’t in western Africa.

Hi, I’m Doctor Joe.

There are a couple of really important things to understand about Ebola. Firstly, it’s not new. We hear about these outbreaks, and this one at present does appear to be the worst one we’ve had that’s been recorded, but it’s not a new virus.

It’s also largely confined to western Africa, even though there are isolated cases that have been reported in the United States, these are people who have travelled from Western Africa.

There’s one really important differentiation between a virus like Ebola, and say the common cold. The common cold is what we call very contagious, that means if somebody has it there’s a pretty high chance you can pass it on to other people. But it’s not infectious, that means that if you get a cold you don’t get terribly sick with it. So you’re fairly likely to get it, but you won’t get terribly sick.

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Ebola is the exact opposite. It is not contagious. It is quite difficult almost to get Ebola. It is not, and I would like to repeat, not transmitted by droplets, so you can’t get it say through air conditioning or just by being in the same room with somebody. You have to be in physical contact with bodily fluids of someone who is infected with Ebola. So this means for example blood products, saliva or any other bodily fluids, but not just breathing the same air. But Ebola is infectious, which means that even though it’s not likely that you’ll get it, you’re likely to get very sick if you do contract it. And sadly the fatality rate is something in excess of 70%. So not everybody who gets Ebola will die but there is a much higher likelihood.

So the very, very important differentiation between the likelihood of getting it and getting very sick if you contract it.

Obviously western Africa is a very different situation, say to Australia. And the main reason why we have not and in my view will never see a major outbreak of a virus like Ebola is because of our living conditions and our standards of sanitation. So therefore it’s fairly easy to quarantine people and to not have contact with people who may be infectious.

So again, even if there is somebody at some point who enters Australia and has Ebola, it’s not going to set off an outbreak or an epidemic. I think that’s a very, very important point.

The people arguably at biggest risk apart from those in parts of western Africa are indeed health workers because they are working day to day with these people. Even for them, fortunately, complete body coverage can reduce the likelihoods, in fact can almost stop them getting Ebola and also Ebola doesn’t live very long off the body, so simple hand washing can pretty much get rid of it.

Obviously for people who do get the symptoms they can be very, very unwell. High temperature, headaches, aches and pains at the start and it can cause leaking of the blood vessels. It’s called a haemorrhagic virus which is why people can lose a lot of blood and hence this can be fatal.

So, Ebola, a serious issue and it is up to perhaps western countries to assist where we can the people living in western Africa. But for the rest of us who are fortunate enough to live in Australia or any western country, we are not at risk of getting Ebola and the only exception to that is if we are in physical contact directly with someone who is infectious. And I think it’s fair and reasonable to say that for the vast, vast, vast majority of us, that means that we are not at risk.

More information

For more information on the Ebola virus, its symptoms and how it can be treated, see Ebola Virus Disease (Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever).


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