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U-M experts put Ebola outbreak into perspective

October 9, 2014
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ANN ARBOR—Now that Ebola has made its way to the U.S. and health officials are beginning to predict its global spread, experts at the University of Michigan School of Public Health discussed the disease in a series of videos that address how the disease is transmitted, the likelihood of spread in this country, its severity and questions about vaccines, quarantine and isolation.

How contagious is Ebola? U-M School of Public Health researchers say Ebola is not as contagious as one might think. You can’t get it sitting next to someone on a bus, said Betsy Foxman, professor of epidemiology. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids in what Mark Wilson, professor of epidemiology, calls “unnatural circumstances.”

Could Ebola become more dangerous? In this video, researchers explain how a virus mutates and what could happen if Ebola changes in how it is transmitted. “Most of the mutations have no effect or can even make the virus nonfunctional, but very occasionally, some mutations may change the way the virus behaves,” said Marisa Eisenberg, assistant professor of epidemiology.

How deadly is Ebola? While the number of people who die from Ebola has been high in some parts of the world, there are good techniques to contain the disease and to treat those who contract it. The key is access to early supportive care. “Ebola is a term that many people are frightened of when they hear it, but it’s actually been a disease we’ve known about for a number of decades,” said Dr. Eden Wells, an assistant professor of epidemiology.

Why is the current Ebola outbreak so severe? “One clear difference is that this is in urban areas, so, much higher density, requiring much more sophisticated infrastructure,” said Joseph Eisenberg, professor of epidemiology. And that essential public health infrastructure is not in place in countries that have experienced severe, sustained civil wars, as most of those affected by the disease have, said Matthew Boulton, professor of epidemiology and senior associate dean for Global Public Health.

Why don’t we have an Ebola vaccine? Vaccines take a long time to be developed and until now the health community did not think Ebola would spread widely, said Arnold Monto, the Thomas Francis Jr. Collegiate Professor of Epidemiology. Even now, he said treatment should come first.

When do we quarantine or isolate for Ebola? Researchers explain the difference in these two means to protect others from the disease. Peter Jacobson, professor of health management and policy, talks about the balancing act between protecting those who may have been exposed and hindering freedom. The bottom line, said Monto: “We are going to have multiple false alarms, which is the price of being vigilant.”

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