What to Worry About (and Not) When It Comes to Ebola

Ebola virus

As an ER doctor, right now I’m thinking a lot about Ebola. It’s in the news, in my inbox and in questions from my patients. Whether it’s an outbreak, a flu epidemic or a bombing, we in the ER see them first, and so I’m always thinking about how we’ll be ready.

Here’s what I’m worried and not worried about when it comes to Ebola.

Ebola Patients in the ER

As an ER doctor, I’m on the front lines of identifying and rapidly treating Ebola. At the ER where I work, we question every patient about their travel history. If they’ve been in an African country with Ebola in the past 30 days and have symptoms, they’re immediately isolated. From that point onwards, only a few providers interact with them while we determine if they have Ebola. I know that most, if not all, suspected patients I might encounter in the future will test negative for Ebola. After all, even if you come back from Africa with a fever, it’s still more likely you have the flu or malaria.

 I’d be lying if I said that I’m not worried. I’m worried about Ebola mainly because it’s a disease that I’ve never treated before. But as an ER doctor, dealing with dangerous infections isn’t new. Tuberculosis, meningitis and the flu all kill more people on a yearly basis than Ebola. That makes me supremely careful with every patient in the ER whether they’re suspected of having Ebola or not. But I’ll also have a much lower threshold to wear protective equipment and enlist the help of specialists with training in this disease. My patients, coworkers and family all need me to have a healthy dose of concern, and to act with caution to protect those around me and provide care.

What Worries Me: Flu Season and Fear of Ebola

Unfortunately, the early flu can present like Ebola. That means that once flu season starts, there will be a flood of people infected with the flu rushing to the ER because they think they have Ebola. What can you do to avoid the congestion of the ER while keeping your family safe?

  • Flu shots. Everyone older than 6 months should either get the flu shot or flu mist.
  • Wash your hands for 20 seconds each time. Preventing the flu in the first place will be more crucial than ever.
  • Remembering how unlikely Ebola exposure is and don’t panic.

What Else Worries Me: The Tragedy of a Growing Ebola Epidemic in Africa

As long as thousands of people are infected in Africa, there will continue to be a tragic loss of lives. There will also probably continue to be people who get through the screening system and arrive in the US infected. They will be a risk to those with whom they live and have close contact. If you live with someone who recently traveled to these areas, you must be extremely vigilant for any suspicious symptoms. If you don’t, know that the risk to the general public is very small.

What Doesn’t Worry Me: The US Public Infected with Ebola

I don’t expect an outbreak situation here in the US. You may have heard that if someone infected with Ebola sneezes on you, they can infect you without you knowing. But guess what? Ebola doesn’t cause people to sneeze or cough. At this point, that scenario is extremely unlikely. For you to be at risk, someone would literally have to throw up on you. (Sorry for the mental image, but I really wanted you to understand).

So please, go about your daily life and don’t lose sleep over Ebola. If you need to be concerned, the medical community will let you know. As a mom myself, I worry about every little thing, too! Ebola and its risk to the general US public is minimal and isn’t something you should worry about right now.

What I Want You to Do

  • Get your flu shot or flu mist if indicated for you.
  • If you are sick, STAY HOME.
  • Wash your hands. Soap and water is best. If you don’t have access to them or your hands are not visibly dirty, you can use an alcohol-based sanitizer with 60% alcohol. Do this especially before you eat anything or touch your face.
  • Know the symptoms of Ebola. Again, while the chances are extremely slim that you’ll be infected, if you come into contact with someone who has traveled to Africa or cared for a patient with Ebola and appears to be ill, call the authorities immediately at 1-800-CDC-INFO.
  • Clean or avoid surfaces touched by many people. Doorknobs, toilet handles, faucets and buffet serving utensils are all places where germs reside. When I can, I use a paper towel to handle these things or sanitize my hands after touching them. Does it make me look like a germophobe? Probably. Do I really care? Nope.