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Ebola is coming to the U.S., but how likely is it to spread?

In 1995, an Ebola virus outbreak gripped the Democratic Republic of Congo, sickening 315 people and killing 254 of them.

I was 9 years old, and media attention on the outbreak was intense for my young eyes. I vividly remember having a nightmare in which my dad flew to Africa to help victims, and brought the disease back to our family.

I woke up asking myself the same question that many Americans are asking during this current Ebola outbreak of much larger proportions: Could the deadly Ebola virus spread in the U.S., particularly with the news that two infected American citizens are en route to a quarantined hospital unit for further treatment?

The CDC reports U.S. outbreak is unlikely

There’s no doubt that the Ebola virus is frightening and leaves behind a wake of human suffering. The good news, though, is that it is unlikely to hit the U.S. beyond the two victims who are intentionally returning to the country under close supervision and treatment. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the U.S. State Department made the call to bring these victims back home for medical treatment with the health of the entire U.S. in mind.

CDC director Thomas Frieden explains that America’s different cultural and precautionary measures will stop the disease’s spread before it has a chance to claim other victims. Furthermore, these health and cultural practices will stop the spread of Ebola, even if an unexpected infection arrives at our country’s ports of entry. In an interview with NBC News, Frieden clarified why the U.S. is unlikely to see any outbreak at all.

It’s still terrifying, but here are some things to calm your mind.

Quarantines. The U.S. has quarantine stations at its major ports of entry. Quarantine plans are already arranged for the two Ebola victims returning to the U.S. If any other person should become ill on a return flight to America, he or she would be quarantined before having a chance to spread the virus. Frieden says that Ebola is such a fast-moving disease that an infection would be easy to spot very quickly. Flight crews are trained to notice Ebola virus symptoms so a sickened person cannot squeeze by a quarantine upon landing.

Better hospital access. Should the Ebola virus make it past quarantine (which is highly unlikely), the American health care system is much better equipped than African systems to contain the spread of disease. Most Americans know that the best place to be when they are very sick is an emergency room or hospital floor. This is not the case in Africa. Many Africans — particularly those in small communities that are the hardest hit by Ebola — are wary of hospitals and do not seek out medical care until they are deathly ill, which means that they spread the disease to the family members and friends who care for them at home.

Universal precautions. Finally, American health care workers practice universal precautions, which are highly effective in containing blood-borne disease. The Ebola virus is not an airborne or droplet-borne disease, which means that people can only be infected if they come in contact with the blood or body secretions of an infected person. Since American hospitals practice universal precautions around body fluids, the Ebola virus cannot spread unchecked as long as an ill person reports to the hospital for treatment.

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