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Ebola is here: 5 reasons not to panic

By Jen Christensen, CNN
updated 4:10 PM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ebola is aggressively infectious; it is not highly contagious
  • Doctors know how it spreads and can keep contamination down
  • Doctors have trained for years on how to handle these patients
  • In past decade, five people known to have viral hemorrhagic fever have entered U.S.

(CNN) -- Donald Trump is tweeting that "We should not be importing (Ebola) to our homeland."

An Indiana congressman is worried that refugee children from Central America could pose a public health risk with "Ebola circulating."

And the Twitter-sphere is filled with people asking "how can we bring these patients to America," complaining that "We don't have enough problems in America! Let's import Ebola patients!" and speculating that treating them here is "highly irresponsible."

But the actual possibility of catching Ebola is incredibly remote.

Health workers transport the body of a person suspected to have died of Ebola in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, on Tuesday, October 21. Health officials say the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the deadliest ever. More than 4,500 people have died there, according to the World Health Organization. Health workers transport the body of a person suspected to have died of Ebola in Port Loko, Sierra Leone, on Tuesday, October 21. Health officials say the Ebola outbreak in West Africa is the deadliest ever. More than 4,500 people have died there, according to the World Health Organization.
The Ebola epidemic
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Photos: The Ebola epidemic Photos: The Ebola epidemic
Ebola patient arrives on stretcher

It's a terrifying disease for sure. It typically kills 90% of the people who get it, and this most recent outbreak is the largest in history. But you don't need to panic, experts say, and you definitely don't have to worry about the two American Ebola patients who are being treated in Atlanta.

Here are five reasons why:

1. It's fragile.

Ebola is an incredibly fragile virus. It does not fly through the air with the greatest of ease. It cannot be transmitted through a cough or sneeze. It doesn't move easily from human to human like the common cold.

Ebola is aggressively infectious, so people who are infected are highly likely to get sick. But it's not highly contagious.

"The Ebola virus spreads through direct contact with the blood, secretions or other body fluids of ill people and indirect contact -- for example, with needles and other things that may be contaminated with these fluids," said Stephan Monroe, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control's National Center for Emerging Zoonotic and Infectious Diseases.

That's why health care providers who work in countries without proper protective gear can get it. That's also why people preparing bodies for burial have gotten it.

2. We know how it works.

Although there is no vaccine and no cure, the one real advantage we have with Ebola is that doctors know how to control it.

Ebola isn't "some mystical pathogen (with) some bizarre mode of transmission," said Bruce Ribner, who oversees the special isolation unit that is treating the patients at Emory University Hospital.

Common-sense hygiene can stop its spread.

"Ebola is a virus that can be stopped and not spread in hospitals. The stakes are higher, but it's easily inactivated with typical hospital disinfectants," said Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Tom Frieden.

What to know about Ebola

3. We have the resources to contain it.

The two American patients with Ebola were flown to the United States in a plane outfitted with an isolation pod.

They are being kept in isolation at the Emory hospital with a specialized containment ward, one of four in the country.

In the containment ward, the vents are specialized. There's an intercom and plate glass that separates patients from visitors so they don't come into direct contact. There's a strict protocol on everyone and everything that goes into and out of the patient's room. Health care workers wear protective suits.

But any major medical center could really take care of an Ebola patient, said William Schaffner, an expert on infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine.

Most ICUs have isolation rooms that are used for patients suspected to have tuberculosis, SARS, Middle East respiratory syndrome or another infectious disease. Schaffner said that not much would be different for an Ebola patient, though more stringent precautions might be taken to ensure that health care workers are following all protocols.

4. Our medical staff is ready.

"We have been training for this," Ribner said of preparations for the two American Ebola patients. These doctors know how to handle Ebola and will use an abundance of caution when working with an infected person.

Medical workers across the country have also been told to watch out for Ebola symptoms and question patients who have recently traveled to West Africa. They are trained to recognize Ebola cases and can quarantine them early, keeping others from coming into contact with an infected person's bodily fluids while the disease runs its course.

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5. Airports are on alert.

At African airports in the Ebola-affected region, passengers are being closely screened. Health experts are watching for people with high fevers. Those who have a temperature are removed and monitored while doctors test their blood for Ebola.

When passengers arrive at the airport, they are required to wash their hands in a chlorinated solution. Customs agents and passport inspectors are also wearing surgical gloves when interacting with passengers.

"There is always the possibility that someone with an infectious disease can enter the United States," CDC spokeswoman Barbara Reynolds said Monday. "The public health concern is whether it would spread and, if so, how quickly.'"

What is the risk of catching Ebola on a plane?

At U.S. airports, trained federal agents also watch for sick passengers. Border patrol is asking about potential exposure. If someone is sick, agents can remove them and keep them in the special isolation units kept at many U.S. airports until the CDC arrives to ask further questions.

Overall, health experts say, the threat to Americans remains relatively small. In the past decade, five people have entered the U.S. known to have a viral hemorrhagic fever, including a case in March of a Minnesota man diagnosed with Lassa fever after traveling to West Africa. No one else contracted the disease.

CNN's Jacque Wilson and Ben Brumfield contributed to this story.

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