Is Ebola the Star of Hollywood Epidemic Disaster Films?

Why it's unlikely that Ebola will soon be coming to a theater near you.

Posted Oct 06, 2014

We’ve all seen the movies (or at least the trailers):  buried deep within the unexplored jungles of Africa lurks a silent, microscopic killer.  Accidentally unleashed, the virus explodes upon the modern world.  Cue the top-secret government base hidden within the mountain, where giant digitalized maps of the world show the virus spreading like spilt red wine across a white tablecloth, killing everyone in the U.S. within 36 hours…

Now, I’m not trying to be overly sarcastic (well, a little maybe), because this Hollywood scenario, although highly unlikely, can happen.

But not with Ebola.

What all those Hollywood epidemic disaster movies have in common (and what, surprisingly, Hollywood got correct) is that such a viral threat to all humanity would require a virus that is spread incredibly easily and quickly, likely meaning a virus that spreads through the air.  The seasonal flu (you know, the one that you should get vaccinated for each year at this time but occasionally blow off) is spread through the air.  Each year, one or more of many influenza viruses infect between 5% and 20% of the entire American population.  On average, more than 200,000 of us annually require hospitalization to fight a serious flu infection, and depending on the viral strain, from 3,000 to just under 50,000 Americans die each year from this common viral infection.  Thus, you, your spouse, your kids, and especially your elderly parents are much, much, much more likely to die from the seasonal flu than to ever be in a city where you know someone who knows someone who heard about someone who was infected with something that might be Ebola.

Because the seasonal flu is spread through the air.  Active virus within tiny droplets of water can be spread up to six feet when an infected person coughs or sneezes, spewing out the virus-filled droplets from their lungs and mouth and nose.  If close enough, you can inhale these infected droplets into your lungs.  Or the infected droplets can land on your hands or face, and then you touch your mouth or nose, introducing the contagious water into your body through the mucous membranes which line your oral and nasal cavities.  Thus one person with the flu, coughing and sneezing at work, at the School Board meeting, at the grocery store, can easily infect any and all of us within six feet of them.  And airplanes?  Don’t get me started about coughing, sneezing passengers with whom you’re trapped with circulating air inside a sealed metal tube! 

Seasonal flu viruses also have a second characteristic which significantly increases their infective potential:  a person with the flu can infect others before developing symptoms.  That is, a day before they “feel sick,” before they develop a fever, muscle aches, fatigue, the not-yet-feeling-sick individual can spread their illness through their coughs and sneezes.  That means that before you even know that your co-worker is going to miss work tomorrow, or the client with whom you just shook hands is soon to get a fever, or the neighbor kid you just gave a lift to will have aching muscles tonight, it’s too late.  Talk about a viral ambush!

So, the seasonal flu? Highly contagious.

The Ebola virus is no seasonal flu.  Yes, I clearly understand that Ebola has a much higher likelihood of killing its victim than does the flu.  But Ebola lacks both of the essential characteristics that makes the flu virus so contagious, and which are both very likely required to star in that Hollywood epidemic blockbuster.  First of all, Ebola is not spread through the air.  The virus is not believed to be contagious to people standing near an infected person who coughs or sneezes.  To be infected with Ebola, you need to have physical contact with infected body fluids and then transfer those infected body fluids to your nose or mouth.  That means you have to touch (physically touch) infected sweat, sputum, urine, blood, or other bodily fluid and then touch your mouth or nose.  That infected body fluid can either be on an Ebola patient or on their sheets, clothes, or other materials with which they have had physical contact (that’s why HazMat teams have taken all of the linens and clothes from patients’ apartments and homes).  So that’s the number one Ebola characteristic that limits it potential to star in a disaster film:  it does not spread easily.

The second epidemic-limiting issue for Ebola is that, unlike the flu, an infected person is only contagious when they are symptomatic.  That is, if someone infected with Ebola is not yet feeling sick, they are not believed to be infectious.  In other words, if someone doesn’t feel sick, you can’t get their Ebola.  And when Ebola makes you feel sick, it makes you feel very sick.  So unless you are seriously drunk or unconscious, it will be obvious to you that that guy on the bus, that woman in line at the book store, that man in the cubicle next to you, is pretty sick, and you shouldn’t be anywhere near him or her or him.

Remember, as of the time of this writing, there have been no known cases where someone became infected with Ebola within the United States (the handful of known or suspected cases all came to the U.S. after exposure to Ebola in Africa).  And while there is currently no Ebola vaccine (they’re working on it), all American hospitals and doctor offices have access to the CDC plan to identify and care for Ebola infected patients (which, by the way, is not vastly different than our protocols for HIV or hepatitis, both of which are also spread through contact with infected body fluids and both of which are also quite dangerous).  And the numerous hospitals with Intensive Care Units are able to provide appropriate care, because Ebola is survivable for most infected people if early enough they receive the type of supportive medical care that we are blessed to have within our borders but which is hard to find in West Africa.

So how can you and your loved ones avoid becoming Hollywood epidemic disaster movie extras?  If you see someone who’s sick, don’t go near them, don’t go near their bedding, don’t go near their clothesWash your hands frequently with simple soap and water.  Try to avoid touching your face throughout the day (you’d be surprised how often we do that).

Oh yeah…if you also get your flu shot soon, you won’t get the flu, either.