What risk does the Ebola virus pose?

Perhaps you have heard about the current Ebola outbreak in West Africa and are wondering if you should be concerned. Let’s look at the facts and evaluate our personal risk.

Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever is spread by exposure to blood or bodily fluids containing the Ebola virus. Sporadic outbreaks of the disease occur in west and central equatorial Africa.

This year’s Ebola outbreak is the worst in history, with more than 1,500 suspected cases and 900 deaths in four African nations. The virus is swift and deadly, with just a few days from exposure to death without access to advanced supportive care.

So should we be worried here in the Copper Country? In a word no.

Oftentimes, our perceptions of the relative risk of various diseases are skewed by the amount of media attention they get. For example, many people are afraid of air travel but think nothing of their daily automobile commute. But according to a recent study by the National Transportation Safety Board, the odds of dying in a motor vehicle accident are 1 in 98 for a lifetime. For air and space transport, the odds are 1 in 7,178 for a lifetime, making flying clearly the safer choice compared with driving.

For comparison, the lifetime odds that you’ll die of heart disease are 1 in 5, and for cancer, 1 in 7. In fact, about half of us will eventually die of heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes, or a car crash. And ponder this every year, sharks kill about 60 people worldwide, but falling coconuts kill 150. Statistically, you might be safer in the ocean than standing on the beach under a tree.

And what is the risk of dying of Ebola? Assuming you are not boarding the next plane to Sierra Leone to volunteer in a rural health clinic, so far your risk is exactly zero, because no one has ever repeat, ever been infected with wild Ebola virus in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

So what can we do to improve our odds of living a long and healthy life? While there are no guarantees, here’s a few suggestions based on health statistics:

Get off the couch and go for a walk. Eat more vegetables. Quit smoking. Don’t drink and drive. Wear your seat belt. Look both ways before crossing the street. Wear a helmet when you bike. Use sunscreen. Wash your hands before eating. Keep up to date on your immunizations. Get a flu shot this fall. Don’t stand under a coconut tree.

And stop worrying about Ebola. People who worry less live longer.

Editor’s Note: Ray Sharp is Manager of Community Planning and Preparedness at Western U.P. Health Department.