Dr. Amy L. Hartman has a few words for those alarmed over the latest viral outbreak.
“You do not need to worry about Ebola. There is no cause for panic.”
Hartman, a 1998 graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, returned to her alma mater Monday to debunk many myths about the potentially deadly virus. An expert in the field of viral studies, Hartman received her Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, where she now teaches and works as research manager of the Regional Biocontainment Laboratory.
In May 2005, she was one in a team of five that worked for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Luanda, the capital city of Angola, studying a Marburg outbreak, a virus described by Hartman as a cousin of Ebola.
In September, fear over Ebola spreading through the United States mounted as the CDC confirmed a man who traveled to Dallas, Texas, from Liberia contracted the virus.
He and one other person died from Ebola in the United States; eight other people treated for the disease in the United States survived.
Hartman said there are many misconceptions about the virus and cited her personal experience and studies to educate those at the student-dominated lecture.
Ebola, which was discovered in 1976, is relatively exclusive to Central Africa. What makes this outbreak different, Hartman said, is the scale.
“This outbreak is 30 times bigger than any previously known outbreak,” she said. “And it’s in an urban setting in West Africa, so people are in closer contact. And there is increased mobility, with people going from city to city.”
This outbreak is the same as others in transmission, symptoms and fatality rate.
Ebola is transmitted from person to person by direct contact with bodily fluids, such as blood, saliva and urine, through the eyes, nose or mouth.
Hartman outlined four activities associated with Ebola, the first being contact with an infected person. The second is direct handling of the infected dead, such as in traditional burial practices in which family wash the dead body. Consumption of wild animal meat, which is not uncommon for some in Africa, and contact with infected bats and bat caves, also spread the virus.
Symptoms of Ebola include fever, headache, muscle pain, weakness, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain, which Hartman said was a prevalent symptom in those infected in the United States.
Later, symptoms can include a rash, hemorrhaging and low blood pressure, or shock, from which most patients will die.
The fatality rate of Ebola is high – 50 to 90 percent – because, as Hartman explained, the virus duplicates, can infect almost every cell in the body and causes direct cell death.
Most people who are infected will be asymptomatic for seven to 14 days.
At the onset of symptoms, she said, most people spend four to six days at home, then become very sick and go to the hospital.
Day 10 is a turning point. If someone is going to die of Ebola, they die about 10 days after the first symptoms. Survivors start to get better on day 10, and will spend about two weeks in hospital.
A common misconception, Hartman said, is that those who have been exposed are unknowingly transmitting the disease to others while asymptomatic. In reality, no traces of the virus can be found in blood tests until day three, meaning the likelihood of transmission during this time is very low.
While Ebola is very deadly, Hartman said we need to have perspective. One way to do that is to look at the number of people one sick person infects. With Ebola, one person infects one to three people, which is relatively low when compared to measles, in which one person infects 12 to 18 people, or mumps, in which one person infects four to seven people.
Hartman also stressed that we need to look at the global impact of the disease. According to the CDC, over 5,000 people have died this year from Ebola. Yellow fever, an infection spread by mosquito bites, causes about 30,000 deaths per year.
And, Hartman said, the idea that scientists and doctors in the United States do not know a lot about Ebola is simply untrue.
“There is a lot of research and promising vaccine candidates,” she said. “The media thinks we don’t know anything about Ebola. We do.”
In her final words to the audience, Hartman advised, “Wash your hands. Cook food properly and get a flu shot.”
Dr. Candy DeBerry, W&J associate professor of biology and an advisor of Phi Sigma biological sciences honor society, which sponsored the event, agreed that the plethora of misinformation has led to “unwarranted panic and ineffective public policy.”
“In the history of the U.S., two people have died from Ebola.
Twenty-three thousand people have died from the flu,” DeBerry said. “That’s what we should be worried about.”