We all breathed a collective sigh of relief when a patient at Mount Sinai Hospital tested negative for the Ebola virus. Still, with so much talk about Ebola—and with cases now popping up in the United States while Africa is experiencing what Time calls “the worst Ebola outbreak in history“—it’s hard not to be at least a little nervous. But should we really be worried about heading towards some kind of Outbreak-like scenario? We spoke to Rossi A. Hassad, PhD, MPH, an associate professor at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry and member of the American College of Epidemiology, about whether or not we should actually be scared about the Ebola in Westchester.
Tell me a little bit about your background in epidemiology.
I’m an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health specialist. I began my work in the area of AIDS/HIV. [Ebola] is in many sways similar to the HIV virus in terms of the way of the way it attacks the immune system, and its aggressive approach to destroying, attacking, and hijacking the immune system.
Why are people so scared of Ebola, as opposed to other, more common infectious diseases?
It’s being projected in the media as something scary—frightening, the end of the world. You see these images of biological agents invading Earth. Just the word “Ebola,” coming from the name of the Ebola River, seems to have a frightening sound to those who don’t understand the language it’s coming from. Also, when we hear of the extreme symptoms and outcomes associated with the Ebola virus, such as severe hemorrhaging, it conjures up images of someone just turning into a liquid. But that’s partially myth. That’s more fiction than it is about the infection.
Is it really as bad as the media and pop culture make it out to be? Does everybody get the most extreme symptoms?
Extreme symptoms do occur, but they are not common. You do have extreme cases, but we will not see extreme cases ever, I think, in the United States.
How contagious is it?
It is not readily contagious. It is not an airborne disease. It is not a foodborne disease. It is not a waterborne disease. It spreads by direct contact with infected material. Infected material here would include body secretions and fluid. Even if infected material is coming from a person, it needs a viable portal of entry—meaning a portal of entry that’s exposed and has a blood or mucosa surface so that the virus can get into your body. In some way you can say it’s deadly but hard to catch. That’s a good way of summing it up.
How likely is it that we’ll see an outbreak here?
And I don’t think we shouldn’t be concerned about an outbreak in the United States, particularly in New York City. We can’t avoid a case or a few cases, because there are so many ports of entry; it’s very difficult to really cover them in a comprehensive way. But we have excellent surveillance measures that will result in early detection and hence be able to contain and control the spread.
The patient at Mount Sinai in New York turned out not to have been Ebola. If he had Ebola, how risky would it be to have him in a hospital in New York City? How easy is it for the virus to get out?
The concern we had about this case will turn out to be a blessing in disguise, in the sense that it brought about heighted concern and allowed us to reexamine how prepared we are. Again, especially in New York City, we have very effective surveillance measures. The fact that we even caught that case should be reassuring. That case ordinarily would not be considered a suspect for Ebola. But given that the patient traveled from a West African country and had symptoms that you tend to see early in the infection, the person should have been and was considered a prime suspect for Ebola. It’s better to err on the side of caution.
Let’s say the worst happens, and somehow there was a case in Westchester that wasn’t caught early. Is there a plan in place for how our community would respond to it?
Very much so. The New York City Department of Health has major guidelines and protocols on handling cases of this kind—long established, of course, but with Ebola, they’ve been enhanced. It relates largely to early detection, isolation, and barrier methods.
Would it be different for Westchester specifically?
No. In many ways, Westchester is one of the places where we tend to see a more advanced level of care.
Are we close to a vaccine, treatment, or cure?
There is no vaccine for this infection. There is no cure, and there is no specific Ebola treatment at this time, except the experimental therapies that are in the news at this time. [ZMapp] is one of them. It’s very early to say if it has any degree of effectiveness, especially when you’re talking about Ebola infection, which has been such a tricky virus. You can one day be doing very well, and the next you can move into major relapse.
Any parting reassuring thoughts?
Ebola is a major concern in West Africa, with the way it’s spreading and the lack of treatment. But I think in the United States, particularly in New York, we can breathe easy. We need to be hyper-vigilant, and we need to continue to become more aware and educate ourselves about this virus and what services are available. Should we become aware of someone who has symptoms, we need to now how to get in touch with the authorities. But there’s no need for alarm and anxiety. We do have very effective measures in place for early detection, containment, and also for treatment of the symptoms—what we call supportive therapy—should there be a case that requires them