Thursday, September 18, 2014


The 2014 outbreak of Ebola is the worst one ever. It has become an international health emergency. At present the main outbreak is confined to West Africa, to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, with a small number of cases cropping up in other countries, including in the United States and a few European nations. But everyone is afraid that it will spread further.

The total number of suspected cases of Ebola as of today is 9937 (actual lab confirmed cases are less). Deaths number 4877. These statistics have been updated on October 24, 2014. Assume that this is a huge underestimation: people are hiding the ill and often those who have died, and statistics in many of these countries are very poor anyway, particularly when it comes to reporting what happens in remote rural areas. I know, I have worked there.

Ebola, which used to be known as “Ebola hemorrhagic fever”, is a deadly disease caused by infection with one of the Ebola virus strains (see the photo above). Ebola is extremely contagious. It is transmitted from someone who is ill to another person by means of the sick person’s blood (for instance, through needle-sharing and through hospital equipment if shared or not properly sterilized) or through body fluids. Body fluids refer to urine, feces, vomit, semen, and saliva. Sweat can also transmit it under certain conditions. So far, the virus is believed not to be airborne, unlike many viruses.

Can you also catch Ebola from food? You will find most websites and media articles saying that you can't. But this type of transmission has been reported during previous outbreaks (for instance, in Uganda) when people in the more remote areas of Africa prepared or ate Ebola virus-contaminated "bushmeat" (such as monkey, bat ). Alright, people in most countries don't include "monkey tartare" or "bat sushi" on their diet (I have read, by the way, that bat soup can be delicious, though have never tried it). But can you catch Ebola from other kinds of food or drink as well?

In theory it is possible. When it comes to food or drink, the issue of saliva is important. Therefore, if you are in an area where there is Ebola, and especially if you are with someone who may have Ebola, you may want to be careful about drinking out of the same container (bottle, glass or whatever), sharing eating utensils, eating out of the same dish, or eating foods prepared or served by someone with Ebola symptoms, or, whom you don't know well. But let me add that the Ebola virus is a very fragile one, and is not believed to last long outside the body, so this type of transmission may be very rare. I don't even know if it has ever occurred in this or previous outbreaks. I have written to the Director of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to ask. So far, no reply.

This is a later addition. Another, less direct route related to food has also occurred to me. I would assume that if the person serving your food and touching your glass or eating utensils is contagious, and sweats on them (as they well might if they are ill and running a temperature), then you might also be at risk for Ebola if this sweat enters a cut in your hand or you transfer the sweat to a mucous membrane. But this is just a hypothesis. No doubt, over the next few months we'll find out more.

To your good health,

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