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Your Questions About Ebola, Answered


We know you have lots of questions about Ebola. We we put a call-out for questions this morning on Twitter and Facebook, many of you wrote in. And we're going to answer some of the questions you sent us now. We'll take on more of them in the days to come. To help us out, I'm joined by our science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. Nell, thanks for doing this.


BLOCK: And first question spins off of something that we just heard about from Geoff Brumfiel. He talked about health worker going around to take the temperature of people who were in contact with the Ebola victim in Texas. So a listener, Mark Lackey of New York City, asks this - why can't we do blood tests on people who have been exposed to see if they're sick or not?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Well, what happens when you get the Ebola virus is that there's a 2 to 21 day incubation period before symptoms start. And you'd have very low levels of virus in your blood, and that affects the ability to use a blood test right away. Here's what Tom Frieden, the director of the CDC, said earlier this week.

TOM FRIEDEN: Even in the initial phases of illness, when they've got a fever, the most sensitive tests in the world sometimes don't detect it because there's so little virus that they have.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: The fact that there's so little virus in their blood is also why people are not contagious until they start having symptoms and get sicker.

BLOCK: OK. A lot of listeners, Nell, wrote in with questions about how Ebola is transmitted, as you might imagine. Here's one from Kyle Foster of Midwest City, Oklahoma. And he writes this - I know Ebola is not transmissible through the air but how about if someone sneezes or coughs and there are airborne droplets of spittle or mucus. We got a lot of questions about sneezing.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Right. Health agencies keep stressing that Ebola is not spread through the air. You get it by having direct contact with the body fluids of someone who's sick. So people say OK, what if someone sneezed and a big droplet of saliva flew right into your mouth, could you get that way? Or what if someone was coughing up blood and a drop of blood hit your eye, could you get Ebola? And the answer is theoretically, yes. But based on epidemiological evidence from past outbreaks, we know that this is not how Ebola usually spreads.

BLOCK: Usually spreads through more direct contact?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Direct contact with someone who's sick - so family members, health care workers, someone who is preparing a body for burial in Africa, that kind of thing.

BLOCK: Nell, we had a lot of questions like this one from Billie Villarrubia of Pasadena, California who writes, how long can the Ebola virus live on a surface - doorknob, faucet, counter, sheet, etc.?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: We don't have great evidence on this. It hasn't been studied that much. It all depends on the temperature, the humidity, what kind of fluid the virus is in. It really wouldn't last that long. But still, people come up with these kind of scenarios. They'll say things like, well, what if somebody was vomiting in a bathroom. And then they touched the doorknob, and there was a bit of vomit on there. And then I came into the bathroom, and I touched the doorknob, and then I touched my mouth. Could I get Ebola that way? And, you know, potentially, theoretically, yes. But experts we talk with say this is not really what people need to be worried about. We know how Ebola spreads. It spreads through close contact with sick, infected people.

BLOCK: Now one last question. And we're going to try to get more of these next week. This is a question about Ebola treatment and it comes from Chris Stocking of Spencerport, New York who asks, just how easy is it to treat and cure Ebola?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: In terms of treatment, I don't think easy is the right word. Maybe straightforward is a better word. There is no proven drug that can fight the virus itself, but people with Ebola do have vomiting and diarrhea. They get very dehydrated. And so doctors think that it really helps to keep them on IV fluids, to monitor their electrolytes. That happens in the United States. People get that kind of intensive medical care. But in West Africa, treatment centers are overwhelmed. They don't have enough beds for the people who want to go there, much less the staff or supplies that would be needed to do things like IV fluids.

BLOCK: That's NPR's science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce. Nell, thanks so much for helping us answer some of these questions.


BLOCK: And one final note - if you're wondering where the Ebola virus got its name, it's named after the Ebola River in the Democratic Republic of Congo where the disease first broke out in 1976. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.