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What’s the risk of infection?

Odds of getting Ebola are tiny, health officials say

Connie Cass Associated Press

WASHINGTON – How come nurses wearing protective gear can catch Ebola from a patient, but health officials keep saying you almost certainly won’t get it from someone sitting next to you on a plane?

First, the odds of an Ebola-infected seatmate in the U.S. remain tiny, even after the news that a nurse coming down with the disease flew commercial across the Midwest this week.

Then there’s the extra screening that’s begun on airline passengers arriving from West Africa.

But even if you were to draw that unlucky spot next to a traveler with a yet-unknown infection, the disease experts would consider you at little or no risk.

Here’s why:

THAT PERSON ON THE BUS OR PLANE MIGHT NOT BE CONTAGIOUS YET.

People infected with Ebola aren’t contagious until they start getting symptoms, such as fever, body aches or stomach pain, research shows.

So far, two infected travelers are known to have flown U.S. commercial airlines:

• The Liberian man who died in a Dallas hospital Oct. 8 wasn’t ill when he flew to the United States, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. So passengers on his United Airlines flights aren’t considered at risk.

• The nurse who flew Frontier Airlines from Ohio back to Dallas on Monday night wasn’t experiencing symptoms, either, the CDC said. But by Tuesday morning she had a fever.

Because her temperature rose so soon after traveling, everyone on her flight will be interviewed by health officials, and passengers determined to be potentially at risk will be monitored. CDC Director Tom Frieden said that’s for “an extra margin of safety.”

But What If That Guy On The Plane Is Sick?

Even if a traveler is already feeling sick, Ebola germs don’t spread through the air the way flu does.

Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with bodily fluid, such as getting an infected person’s blood or vomit into your eyes or through a cut in the skin, experts say.

What if a sick person’s wet sneeze hits your hand and then you absentmindedly rub your eyes? Could that do it?

Asked about such scenarios recently, Frieden allowed that, theoretically, “it would not be impossible” to catch the virus that way. But it’s considered highly unlikely. No such case has been documented.

“Should you be worried you might have gotten it by sitting next to someone?” he said Wednesday. “The answer to that is no.”

Frieden said “what actually happens in the real world” – and he cited four decades of dealing with Ebola in Africa – is that the disease is spread through much more direct contact with a sick person.

Still, the CDC identifies someone who spends a prolonged period within 3 feet of a person who is sick with Ebola as a “contact” who should be watched for signs of catching it for 21 days, just in case.

NURSES, ON THE OTHER HAND, WORK WITH PATIENTS AT THEIR MOST CONTAGIOus.

As Ebola patients get sicker, they become more and more infectious.

The amount of virus in their bodily fluids climbs, and the disease progresses to projectile vomiting and extreme diarrhea, and sometimes bleeding.

All the while, hospital workers are drawing blood, inserting IVs, changing diapers, wiping up.

Doctors, nurses and family caretakers have suffered an especially heavy toll in the West African nations where Ebola is spreading out of control, and where there isn’t enough protective equipment or help.

So far, the three people in this outbreak known to have caught Ebola outside of West Africa – two in Dallas and one in Spain – all are hospital workers.

USING THE PROTECTIVE GEAR IS TRICKY.

Putting on a gown, gloves, hospital mask and clear face shield might not sound that hard.

But once the equipment is contaminated, the steps for carefully removing each piece without infecting yourself are painstaking. It’s easy to slip up.

Spain’s health authorities suspect the assistant nurse in Madrid was infected after touching her gloved hand to her face while taking off her gear.

U.S. officials are still investigating what went wrong in Dallas.

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