The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has now spread to the United States, but an even bigger nightmare may lay ahead: What if Ebola become airborne?
Although the CDC maintains that the Ebola virus is only spread through “close contact” that involves bodily fluids, experts are warning that could change very soon – if it has not already.
The problem is that Ebola is spreading so rapidly that it could mutate into an airborne virus – and be spread via a sneeze or cough, just like the common cold.
In West Africa, the fatality rate is about 70 percent. As of now Ebola supposedly is spread only via bodily fluids.
“[The possibility of it becoming airborne is] the single greatest concern I’ve ever had in my 40-year public health career,” Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told CNN. “I can’t imagine anything in my career — and this includes HIV — that would be more devastating to the world than a respiratory transmissible Ebola virus.”
Around 36 million people have died of AIDS, which HIV causes.
Experts say a virus that spreads slowly has little chance of becoming airborne, but the more rapid Ebola spreads, the greater the chances of it making the airborne leap.
The CDC says that if nothing changes, Ebola could spread to 1.4 million people by late January. But that figure assumes it doesn’t become airborne. The CDC also says the number of cases is doubling every 20 days. If the CDC’s prediction of 1.4 million cases is correct, then there could be 1 million deaths from Ebola by late January, simply due to the fatality rate. But if it goes airborne? The total could be several million.
(Read Off The Grid’s previous story, “Ebola Invades America: What You’re Not Being Told,” here.)
Anthony Banbury, the secretary general’s special representative for the United Nations, said the international community has been a “bit late” to fight Ebola and that he is concerned what could happen if it does go airborne.
“The longer it moves around in human hosts in the virulent melting pot that is West Africa, the more chances increase that it could mutate,” he told the Telegraph. “It is a nightmare scenario [that it could become airborne], and unlikely, but it can’t be ruled out.”
A 2013 Canadian study showed that Ebola could spread through the air, but only between different species – such as from pigs to monkeys. That alone could account for why the virus has spread more rapidly than many experts predicted.
(Listen to Off The Grid Radio’s in-depth report on preparing for Ebola here.)
Osterholm wrote a New York Times op-ed in which he said the world should be concerned about an airborne Ebola.
“Viruses like Ebola are notoriously sloppy in replicating, meaning the virus entering one person may be genetically different from the virus entering the next,” Osterholm wrote. “The current Ebola virus’s hyper-evolution is unprecedented; there has been more human-to-human transmission in the past four months than most likely occurred in the last 500 to 1,000 years. Each new infection represents trillions of throws of the genetic dice.
“If certain mutations occurred, it would mean that just breathing would put one at risk of contracting Ebola. Infections could spread quickly to every part of the globe, as the H1N1 influenza virus did in 2009, after its birth in Mexico.”
He concluded, “Why are public officials afraid to discuss this? They don’t want to be accused of screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater — as I’m sure some will accuse me of doing. But the risk is real, and until we consider it, the world will not be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic.”
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