Ebola fears rise in U.S., but risk remains low

Oct. 21, 2014—Public fears of an impending U.S. Ebola outbreak have grown in the wake of confirmed cases of the disease in this country.

The number of people worried that a family member will get Ebola is also higher today than when the Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) first surveyed American attitudes in August.

But the risk of a major outbreak in this country remains very low, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite cases of transmission in the U.S., the fact remains that Ebola isn’t that easy to spread.

Ebola: The polls vs. the facts

HSPH followed up its August poll with a similar survey conducted from Oct. 8 through Oct. 12. The second survey involved 1,004 adults.

Here are some of the poll results, followed by facts from CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Poll: Most people (85 percent) believe Ebola can be transmitted by the sneeze or cough of an infected person.

FACT: Ebola spreads through direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids. Bodily fluids include blood, saliva, vomit and feces (diarrhea is a symptom of Ebola). The fluids can come directly from the person or from contaminated items (syringes, clothing or bedding). Direct contact means contact with broken skin or mucous membranes, such as the eyes, mouth or nose. Ebola is not spread by air or water. As such, Ebola infections can spread via cough or sneeze only to someone in direct contact with the ill person—not to someone standing even a few feet away.

Poll: About half (49 percent) believe the virus is “very likely” to spread from an infected person.

FACT: People need to be in very close contact to get Ebola from an infected person. That’s why many of those who have contracted the disease are health care workers. Health care providers and family who have regular, intimate contact with a sick person’s bodily fluids have the highest risk of getting the disease.

Poll: More than half (52 percent) worry the U.S. will see a large Ebola outbreak in the next 12 months.

FACT: The three West African countries that have been the most severely affected recently experienced long periods of conflict and political instability, with very weak health systems and few resources left to them. The U.S. health system bears little resemblance to those of Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

You can read a summary of the HSPH’s October poll here.

The take-home message

There’s little risk of a major Ebola outbreak in the U.S.

You can read the latest updates about Ebola—and learn the history of the virus—at CDC’s Ebola website. To learn how Ebola spreads—and does not spread—check out this infographic.


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