Yahoo Travel asked for my opinion on the 2014 Ebola Outbreak. Here's what I told them. I've updated this in Sept 20, 2014.
First some background on me:
- I was in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea from July to September 2013 - so a few months before the March 2014 Ebola outbreak.
- I'm in Benin. Then I'll spend October 2014 traversing Nigeria to Cameroon (see map on right).
- I'm spending 4 years visiting all 54 African countries.
Should You Be Afraid of Ebola?The outbreak does give me pause, but only for about 5 seconds. It's easy to get excited about this outbreak, but it's important to have perspective:
- Annual auto fatalities in Guinea (1,956), Sierra Leone (1,323), Liberia (760) total 4,039.
- Therefore, the average person in those three countries is more likely to die in a traffic related accident than by Ebola.
- Yet, almost nobody in those countries wear a seat belts (many cars don't even have working seat belts).
- So if we want to save the most African lives, why don't their governments mandate wearing seat belts and improving their road conditions?
- Nobody will worry about me going to Eritrea because it's on Africa's east coast (far from the outbreak). However, according to the WHO, Eritrea has the worst road fatality rate in the world (12 times worse than the UK and twice as deadly as Liberia). In other words, if I go to Eritrea, I'm more likely to die in car accident than to die of Ebola in Liberia.
- Another way of thinking about it: those three countries have 22 million people. "Only" 2,500 have died. Thus, Ebola has killed 0.01% of the population. Your chance of dying from Ebola when you are in one of those 3 African countries is one in 10,000. That's better odds than the lottery, but it won't make me lose sleep.
- Remember that we're just looking at the 3 most affected countries. If you are in Nigeria, Senegal, or anywhere else on the planet, then you're far more likely to get hit by lightning.
Malaria vs. Ebola
But Ebola is growing exponentially!
Yes, it's true (see the graph on the right).
However, the graph on the right also shows that only in Liberia is there true exponential growth.
Elsewhere, Ebola is flatlining, as victims are quarantined.
Yes, traffic accidents and malaria are not growing exponentially (their graphs would be similar to the linear growth that we see in Sierra Leone and Guinea). However, as the other graph above demonstrates, Ebola is not deadliest thing in those three countries.
It's tempting to continue drawing the exponential line of Liberia, but past performance doesn't indicate future results. Past outbreaks of Ebola had a similar slope at the onset. Each time we contained them and the graph came crashing down.
Of course, we need a bit of hysteria to spring people to action. However, the only people who really matter are the government officials and health care workers. The guy sitting in Benin or the USA has little to worry about.
Ebola's Fatality Rate Myth
That's misleading. Yes, it can reach that high, but the average fatality rate is about 52%. That's still horrible, but it's not a guaranteed death sentence. If you catch and treat it early, you improve your odds.
On the other hand, when a leading doctor died of Ebola, I was discouraged. You'd think that he, of all people, would not only be carefully monitoring himself, but also that at the first signs of symptoms, he would treat himself aggressively. Yet he died.
- Don't eat bush meat (or any meat, frankly).
- Don't worry about visiting an Ebola-infected country.
- If you do, consider wearing plastic gloves.
- Either take anti-malarial medicine or always have the treatment for malaria with you.
- Wear seat belt whenever possible.