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Don't Panic: Why Ebola Won't Become an Epidemic in New York

A New Yorker has Ebola, but the city's in no danger -- and here's why not.
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A New York City doctor just back from volunteering in Africa with Doctors Without Borders has tested positive for Ebola — a high price to pay for trying to help fight an epidemic that’s killed more than 4,500 people and threatens to infect tens of thousands.

The doctor, identified as Dr. Craig Spencer of Columbia University, correctly warned other experts before he was taken to Bellevue Hospital, which has been gearing up to tackle Ebola cases. New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia Medical Center, where he usually worked, says he stayed away during the virus’ 21-day incubation period. “He is a committed and responsible physician who always puts his patients first. He has not been to work at our hospital and has not seen any patients at our hospital since his return from overseas,” it said in a statement Thursday night.

Here are some reminders of why New York isn’t in danger of an Ebola epidemic:

Ebola only spreads via bodily fluids

Think wet and warm. The virus lives in vomit, diarrhea, blood and sweat. Heat kills it, it doesn’t survive being dried out, and it doesn’t travel through the air. It also doesn’t appear to stick to surfaces much, so unless Spencer threw up in a public place, he would not have exposed the public to the virus. Even if he did, someone would have to touch it and then carry wet particles to their eyes, nose or mouth to become infected.

Ebola patients cannot infect others before they are sick themselves

No one has been documented to have spread the virus before showing symptoms such as a high fever, vomiting and diarrhea. The virus builds up in the body as patients get sicker. In fact, people in the early stages of Ebola infection often test negative for the virus, because there’s not very much in their blood. While the virus is found in sweat and that might make people wary of public transport, what's meant by that is that it’s found in the profuse sweat of very ill patients and unlikely to be in the normal perspiration of an otherwise asymptomatic person.

Ebola does not spread through casual contact

The people most at risk of Ebola are caregivers and health care workers, who are physically touching Ebola patients at their sickest. In 40 years of studying Ebola outbreaks, no one has seen a mystery case. People are infected by direct contact with others — not casual contact on buses, trains or in the street.

Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person to die of Ebola in the United States, didn’t infect his girlfriend or other people who were in an apartment with him after he became ill. Close to 50 people who had some sort of contact with him all have passed the 21-day incubation period without disease. He did infect two nurses who had been intensively caring for him when he was very ill.

Ebola has to get inside you to infect you

Unlike measles or tuberculosis, you can’t just breathe in Ebola virus and get infected. For one thing, it doesn't float in the air like those germs do. It must get into the eyes, nose or mouth, or get past the very strong barrier that is human skin, carried by a needle or perhaps through a fresh cut. Soap and water quickly removes Ebola virus and bleach or alcohol kills it quite effectively.