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Oct 20, 2014 | 21:41 GMT

5 mins read

Conversation: U.S. Media Coverage of Ebola Exceeds Transmission Risk

Ben Sheen: Hello and thank you for joining us. My name is Ben Sheen. I'm one of the managing editors here at Stratfor, and I'm joined by Science and Technology Analyst Rebecca Keller. Today we're going to be talking about Ebola and the most recent outbreak not only in Africa but also in the United States. Rebecca, what is it in particular about Ebola that has so captured the public imagination. We've seen epidemics before, but what is specific to this virus?

Rebecca Keller: I think it’s the severity of the virus. It was relatively unknown up until now and it's extremely deadly, so it's also extremely scary. I think not having a cure does make it a lot scarier.

Ben: Absolutely. It’s the deadly nature of the virus itself that's really captured peoples' imagination, but in comparison to other viruses it's really not that communicable is it?

Rebecca: You're correct. It's not that communicable. Transmission of Ebola requires direct contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person that is showing symptoms. It requires extremely close contact. It's not that easy to transmit at all, which is one of the reasons it doesn't spread quickly and can be contained through modern medicine and precautionary techniques. This is why there's not as great of a risk of an outbreak in a developed country where these kind of precautionary measures are readily available to the medical community.

Ben: Yes. As we saw in Africa initially, the virus spread relatively quickly, partially due to a lack of infrastructure and also a failure to really deal with the virus in its initial stages. How do you see containment being enforced in somewhere like a first-world country with access to first-world medicine?

Rebecca: Containment in developed nations, or even as we saw in Nigeria and Senegal, requires the tracking of contact cases, knowing who has had contact with the confirmed Ebola patients, monitoring those patients for the incubation period of the disease and just keeping those suspected cases or possible contacts under quarantine and constant monitoring to make sure to catch any additional cases as early as possible. Nigeria, which was just declared Ebola-free after 42 days with no new cases, is a prime example. They were able to track all of the contacts of their initial index case to start with. Keeping track of who has been in contact with the patient and limiting contact with the patient using proper precautionary measures is extremely important. It's also extremely important to understand how the disease itself is transmitted and to continue to use the proper precautionary procedures.

Ben: As we've seen recently with the first case here in Dallas, actually tracking people who are infected is not as easy as it seems. Actually making sure that those people aren’t allowed to come into contact with anyone else is difficult in its own right.

Rebecca: It is difficult in its own right, but it's not impossible. It all comes back to difficulty of transmission. We did see two healthcare workers infected from the initial index case in Dallas, and healthcare workers and first responders are at the greatest risk for transmission, especially before the disease has been identified. However, the CDC is working to track not only the contacts of the initial index case, but also of the two nurses affected. A lot of those trackings are of what we could consider to be minimal risk patients. For instance, on the airline where the second nurse traveled, those passengers are actually at very minimal risk because at the moment, the nurse wasn't showing active symptoms during the flight. She only had a low-grade fever, which means that transmission would be highly unlikely in that case. So for the tracking of additional cases and these hundreds of cases, the phrase that's used quite often is "abundance of caution." It's just to make sure that any possible — no matter how remotely — infection is kept track of. Yes, it’s a difficult procedure, but the developed world has the capability to do that kind of tracking.

Ben: As well as the tracking aspect, there's also a treatment aspect. At the moment, no known cure for Ebola exists. Do you think we are likely to see any evolution of a cure in the next few years with an increased awareness?

Rebecca: It's quite possible. We've seen the acceleration of vaccine trials already from the initial outbreak, but it's really hard to determine the success rate of those. It's usually a years-long process. What we really need to stop seeing, and what will contain this virus, this current outbreak in West Africa, is treatment at the source. It's going in to those countries — Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone — where the outbreak is still rampant, still increasing. Increasing education, increasing facilities there and stopping the outbreak at its source. Until that's done, we expect to see these additional isolated cases popping up in the developed world and in other countries, possibly in a region that might be less equipped to handle it. Until the source is contained, we will likely continue to see this continued interest in the media because every case will reinvigorate the interest.

Ben: Absolutely. As you said quite critically there, the cases are isolated, they're small in number and they're very unlikely to spread further. Unfortunately, that's all we've got time for today. Rebecca, thank you very much for joining me here. I encourage you to keep reading Stratfor and look out for any further updates and analyses on Ebola.

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