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8 Myths About The Ebola Outbreak

TL;DR: You won't need to wear a hazmat suit to any cocktail parties any time soon.

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1. "Someone could have Ebola and be contagious without knowing it."

Frederick A. Murphy / CDC

According to the the World Health Organisation, an Ebola patient is only contagious when they are showing symptoms. It takes between 2 and 21 days (but typically around 5–7 days) from infection for someone to start showing symptoms.

Symptoms include "a fever, a headache, joint and muscle pain, a sore throat, and intense muscle weakness".

Before they start showing symptoms, a person would be unaware that they have Ebola, but they wouldn't be infectious.

2. "You can catch Ebola if someone coughs or sneezes on you."

Getty Images/iStockphoto bert_phantana

"There's no evidence for that at all," Dr Ron Behrens, a senior lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BuzzFeed News.

Yet a poll of 1,004 American adults showed that 85% of them believed you'd be "likely" to catch Ebola if you were coughed or sneezed on by someone who had the disease.

The truth is Ebola isn't airborne, so you can't catch it from people coughing and sneezing. It's spread through a person's broken skin or mucous membranes coming into contact with bodily fluids of ill people, preparing dead bodies for burial, or from coming into contact with infected animals.

3. "You could catch Ebola from a pet dog."

Handout / Reuters

In Spain, a dog (above) belonging to a nurse who was infected with Ebola was euthanised. According to Associated Press, "the government said available scientific knowledge suggests a risk that the mixed-breed dog could transmit the virus to humans".

But that does not seem to be the expert view. "We were all very surprised at the decision," Behrens told BuzzFeed News. "There was no medical reason for [the dog to be put down]."

If bodily fluids were exchanged, it's possible a dog could catch the virus. But scientists don't know what would happen then. "Whether the dog would become sick or not is unclear," said Behrens.

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4. "You can catch Ebola at a cocktail party."

Jemal Countess / Getty Images for TIME

American politician and a former ophthalmologist Rand Paul (above) has warned partygoers of the dangers of Ebola. "If someone has Ebola at a cocktail party they're contagious and you can catch it from them," Paul said in a speech at Plymouth State University, New Hampshire.

But an exchange of bodily fluids needs to take place to catch Ebola from someone. So while it's technically possible to catch Ebola from someone at a cocktail party, you'd need to be doing more than making polite conversation.

"You can't catch it from sitting next to a person, and you can't catch it from shaking hands," Behrens told BuzzFeed News.

5. "Ebola could mutate and become airborne/undetectable/more contagious."

CDC/ NIAID

Several people have suggested that Ebola could mutate and become airborne.

Technically, it's possible for a virus to mutate, but there's no evidence that Ebola has mutated and changed the way it's transmitted. "Speculation that Ebola virus disease might mutate into a form that could easily spread among humans through the air is just that: speculation, unsubstantiated by any evidence," said the WHO in a statement on 6 October.

"Theoretically, viruses mutate," Behrens told BuzzFeed News. "There's been no strong evidence that there's been significant mutation in the virus over the last 30 or 40 years. It's very unlikely to be a problem in such a short time scale."

In fact, we've never seen a human virus mutate in this way. On his blog, Professor Vincent Racaniello of Columbia University, writes: "We have been studying viruses for over 100 years, and we've never seen a human virus change the way it is transmitted."

6. "Ebola is more contagious than XYZ."

Tom Phillips / BuzzFeed

Basic reproduction number, or R0, is a measure of how many new people, on average, each person with a disease will infect. The larger an R0, the harder an epidemic is to control. For Ebola, that number is between 1.7 and 2.

For comparison, seasonal flu has an R0 range of 0.9-2.1, for SARS it's 0.7-3.6, and for measles it's 10.0-180.

7. "Everyone should be wearing a hazmat suit."

Everyone wants to know who the guy near an Ebola patient without a hazmat suit is http://t.co/jk7SHOkwsy

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Everyone wants to know who the guy near an Ebola patient without a hazmat suit is http://t.co/jk7SHOkwsy

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A photograph of a man in normal clothes escorting an Ebola patient and several healthcare workers (wearing full hazardous materials suits, aka hazmat suits) to a plane, did the rounds last week, with many people criticising his apparent lack of protection.

But the truth is, if you're not going to be in direct contact with a patient, you don't need to wear a suit. "The suit's there to stop bodily fluids contaminating you, and then you moving those fluids to your eyes or nose where infection would occur," Behrens told BuzzFeed News.

Even doctors treating Ebola patients in the US don't necessarily need to wear a full suit. The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines on 20 October about what hospital workers should wear, and these include two sets of gloves, disposable hoods with full face shields and masks.

As science writer Kelly Hills points out in a blog post, the conditions in West Africa are far from those in the US or the UK, and so the protective gear required in each is different.

In places such as Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia, Hills writes, "it's impossible to keep the patients inside a protective environment, due to the economy, the lack of infrastructure, the lack of ability because there's no technology, there's no power". In effect, it's the healthcare workers who are in isolation inside their hazmat suits. Doctors in the US, treating patients in fully equipped isolation units, don't need the same level of protection.

8. "Ebola makes you bleed to death."

John Moore / Getty Images

The stereotype of Ebola, thanks to its depiction in films and books like The Hot Zone, is that its victims die extremely bloody deaths, their bodies virtually dissolving under the viral onslaught. But while some Ebola victims do bleed, some don't – and bleeding is rarely the cause of death.

In his book Spillover, David Quammen writes: "The often-used term 'Ebola haemorrhagic fever' is itself a misnomer for Ebola virus disease, because more than half the patients don't bleed at all. They die of other causes, such as respiratory distress and shutdown (but not dissolution) of internal organs… During the Kikwit outbreak, 59% of all patients didn't bleed noticeably at all, and bleeding in general was no indicator of who would or wouldn't survive. Rapid breathing, urine retention, and hiccups, on the other hand, were ominous signals that death would probably come soon."

In the current outbreak, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that "specific haemorrhagic symptoms" were reported in under 6% of cases, and "unexplained bleeding" was only reported in 18% of cases.

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