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What's a 'Contact'? Your Guide to Ebola Jargon

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The medical jargon is flying — contacts, isolation, infection, transmission. The arrival of the first Ebola patient to be diagnosed on U.S. soil has people worried and often confused.

Here’s a quick glossary on the medicalese:

Contact: This is someone who’s been close to a patient with Ebola or any other disease. Being a contact does not necessarily mean someone is at risk of infection. It just means they spoke to or touched or were near a patient. Health officials want to speak with contacts to make sure what their actual risk might be.

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Contact tracing: That’s a painstaking process of finding and speaking to everyone who may have been in contact with a patient. Contact tracing can also involve finding and speaking with contacts of contacts. If someone later gets sick, their own contacts can then be found more easily and monitored.

Exposure: Exposure also doesn’t mean infection. If someone is exposed to Ebola or any other infectious agent, it means they came into contact in a way that puts them at high risk of infection. With Ebola, exposure means direct contact with an infectious bodily fluid, such as vomit, blood or feces, without protective gear. It can also mean a needle stick — being scratched or poked by a needle that’s been used on a patient.

Infection: Infection means the virus is in a patient’s blood or body.

Transmission: Transmission occurs when one patient gives the virus to another, either directly or indirectly.

Isolation: That’s when a person who has symptoms of disease is separated from healthy people.

Quarantine: People are quarantined when they are considered at risk of carrying an infection, but are not sick yet. The word comes from old Italian for “40 days” — a period that ships were kept offshore to ensure crews or cargo were not carrying infectious diseases into port. The words isolation and quarantine are often used interchangeably, however.

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