Can You Get Ebola When Infected Person Sneezes? And Other FAQs - NBC New York

Deadly Virus' Arrival in U.S. Sparks Concerns

Can You Get Ebola When Infected Person Sneezes? And Other FAQs



    NYC Disease Doctor Answers Questions on Ebola

    Dr. Abdulrahman El-Sayed, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, answers NBC 4 New York viewer questions on how Ebola is spread. (Published Friday, Oct. 24, 2014)

    As health officials and city leaders continue to reassure New Yorkers there's almost no chance of anyone in the general public contracting Ebola because of Dr. Craig Spencer's diagnosis, there's still a great deal of questions and concern. 

    Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, a professor of epidemiology at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, visited NBC 4 New York to help answer some viewer questions. This is a transcript of the segment as aired on Friday. 

    I want to to know how a doctor, who allegedly knows how to be protected against this virus got infected. They say it’s so hard to catch, so how is it happening? -- Deana A. 

    Dr. El-Sayed: We have to remember that the process of medical care means that you are literally touching patients and in that respect, it’s very difficult to come away with something like this. 

    Even then, we have to remember our doctors are protecting themselves with a lot of protective gear. But it’s very difficult to put on and off. And it’s been covered substantially in the media, that some of these challenges can lead to unfortunate infections, but that’s what happens when people put themselves in harm's way and are willing to take care of patients with this disease.

    What about when an infected person sneezes? Their saliva droplets fly everywhere for everyone to breathe in, touch etc. -- Anne Marie S. 
    Or say if you sit in a seat after that person and they get bodily fluids or blood on the seat, what is to say it cannot be spread? -- Elaine C.

    Dr. El-Sayed: I can certainly understand the fear but it's really important to remember that the doctor didn’t actually travel on any of these public transportation lines when we think he was actually infectious.

    To be infectious with this virus you have to have a really high number of copies of the virus in your blood. And when that happens, the body reacts by causing a fever. So really, it wasn’t until he had the fever that he has enough of the virus in his blood to actually be able to infect anybody.

    So even though he was riding the subway, even if he sneezed, it’s highly unlikely that there was any real virus in those bodily fluids because at this point he wasn’t showing symptoms. 

    We have to remember that on Thursday morning when he started to feel [feverish], the first thing that he did was come to medical attention. Before then he wasn’t having any fevers, the only thing he reported was that he was feeling a little down and tired. I think it’s a little difficult for us to attribute that to the virus itself. There's very little fear that he would have infected anybody else on the subway or on the taxi.

    Why are the three associates of the doctor now in quarantine when they are showing no symptoms? -- Pete L.

    Dr. El-Sayed:  Unless the index patient, in this case Dr. Spencer, was showing symptoms, there’s no way of knowing whether or not he actually had the disease. However, we do know that at this point those who have come in contact with him are substantially higher risk. And it does make sense at this point when we know the disease has occurred in that index patient to quarantine them. 

    One of the things we also have to consider, though, is that even as we want to protect ourselves in the United States from this very deadly virus, we have to remember that there is an epidemic raging in West Africa. And the likelihood of more patients coming here is the function of how many cases there are in west Africa. So we don’t want to do things that are going on to keep health care workers from being able to fight that epidemic there and that really is the danger of something like a quarantine.

    Now if I, as a medical professional, want to go and take care of people in west Africa with Ebola, and I know I'm going to get slapped with 21 days in quarantine when I get back, even if I'm not sick, that’s going to decrease my likelihood of doing that. 

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