Fearmongering Or Reality: Airborne Ebola

Making the rounds of the news and Internet are stories about Ebola possibly becoming airborne, which would create a nightmare scenario of epic proportions. Ebola has always been a direct fluid/blood transmission disease. If it could be transmitted through the air, well, for a disease with at least a 70% death rate….well, you can imagine. But, is it true?

(WND) While Centers for Disease Control and World Health Organization officials continue to insist Ebola cannot be transmitted by air from one person to another, an Army manual clearly warns the virus could be an airborne threat in certain circumstances.

The handbook published by the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, USAMRID, titled “USAMRID’s Medical Management of Biological Casualties Handbook,” is now in its seventh edition.

The most recent edition was published in 2011, with more than 100,000 copies distributed to military and civilian health-care providers around the world.

On page 177 of the handbook, in a chapter discussing “Viral Hemorrhagic Fever” (VHF), a category of viruses that includes Ebola, USAMRID says: “In several instances, secondary infections among contacts and medical personnel without direct body fluid exposure have been documented. These instances have prompted concern of a rare phenomenon of aerosol transmission of infection.”

Obviously, WND tends to be a bit over the top, yet, that is in the handbook. What about National Geographic?

But just as worrisome as the virus’s geographic spread is its journey across the evolutionary landscape. Is it mutating in ways that could make it more dangerous to humans? Is there any chance that it might become transmissible through the air, like the flu, the SARS virus, or a common cold?

Although Ebola becoming airborne is the ultimate disease nightmare, that seems to be almost vanishingly improbable, for reasons well put in a recent article in the Washington Post by Laurie Garrett, a senior fellow for global health at the Council on Foreign Relations. What is now a fluid-borne virus attaching itself to cells lining the circulatory system can’t easily change into one that targets the tiny air sacs in the lungs.

“That’s a genetic leap in the realm of science fiction,” Garrett wrote.

Whew! But

(CBS DFW) The executive director of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons says that despite what the CDC is saying, Ebola might be transmitted by breathing.

“What we’re suggesting is that it is very dangerous to assume that one cannot ever acquire Ebola from an aerosol or from breathing,” said Dr. Jane Orient.

And

(Breitbart) On Tuesday’s “Hannity,” Dr. David Sanders, a Purdue University virologist and expert on the Ebola virus, elaborated on a claim he made earlier in the week, which he argued of the possibilities the current strain Ebola inflicting its wrath on West Africa and in a handful of cases in the United States and Western Europe could mutate and become a threat to be transmitted through the air.

There are plenty of these sometimes “just wondering out-loud” and/or “we’re potentially doomed” articles, some from more credible sources than others, all of which are Not Helping The Show, in terms of being the type of thing that shouldn’t be hyped. Here’s one that is a both reassuring and bit disturbing

Airborne transmission of Ebola not studied

Despite fear that the Ebola virus will rapidly mutate into an airborne pathogen, that possibility is low, scientists say

In August, researchers in West Africa, Europe and the United States sequenced the genomes of Ebola virus isolated from dozens of patients and found it acquired mutations as it spread. They did not test whether those genetic changes affect its ability to infect and survive.

“It’s an extremely difficult thing to speculate about,” said Charles Bailey, executive director of the National Center of Biodefense and Infectious Diseases at George Mason University, who was not involved in the study. “Is a mutation capable of making it airborne transmissible? Nobody knows.”

Of course, why worry about it becoming airborne when it has become “airborne“, in terms of people flying airplanes while infected with Ebola.

Crossed at Pirate’s Cove. Follow me on Twitter @WilliamTeach.

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