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The Difference Between Ebola in the US and In Africa

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The Difference Between Ebola in the US and In Africa

Oct 01, 2014

Ebola has reached the United States, but doctors everywhere are saying there is no need to panic. Sankar Swaminathan is the chief of the infectious disease division at University of Utah Healthcare. He explains why an outbreak similar to the one in West Africa is highly unlikely in the US.

Episode Transcript

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: I think one of the concerns that people have in America now that the first case of Ebola is here in the United States is that we're going to have a situation similar to that of Africa. Dr. Sankar Swaminathan is the Chief of the Infectious Disease Division at the University of Utah and an infectious disease specialist.

Tell me why we shouldn't expect the same thing happening in the United States as, related to Ebola, as we've seen happen in Africa.

Dr. Swaminathan: The situation is dramatically different here in the United States from West Africa. With regards to transmission, there are two places where transmission has occurred, in the community and in the health care setting. The health care setting in West Africa is about as different from the health care setting in the United States as one could imagine. There are mud floors, no gloves, no running water in many places. So we have the capability here to protect our health care workers and our other patients from spread in the hospital. And that does make a huge difference. There has really been no such transmission in Western hospitals, even when cases have been brought here of other viral hemorrhagic fevers as well.

The transmission in the community occurs because of a variety of reasons. But a lot of it has to do with resources, a lack of trust in officials and in the health care system so that people are afraid to seek care. People even chase away workers when people have come to help. This leads to increased transmission in the homes where people don't have the facilities to deal with it. So that's very, very different. So we're not going to have unchecked spread in homes or in hospitals in this country.

The second is the transmission is really not as easy as people seem to think. Many of these studies that have to do with varieties of transmission have been done in a laboratory. But when you've actually looked at outbreaks of Ebola, even people who lived in a home with someone who died of Ebola did not get the infection unless they were directly in physical contact with the patient, or cleaning up their blood, or vomit, or other bodily fluids.

It's all relative risk. And as long as we have good public health facilities, which we do in this country, it should and will be possible to isolate, identify contacts, isolate those contacts and limit the infection so that one person cannot spread the infection to more than another person.

Now while one can't rule out a secondary case, it's very, very unlikely. Given what we know, from all the evidence that we have as to how it's transmitted, as to how long the virus can live on surfaces, as to how infectious people are, it's very unlikely that we would have the kind of transmission that's occurring in West Africa today.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.