We need to talk to kids about the current Ebola outbreak for the exact same reason we talk to kids about sex: there is so much wildly inaccurate information available, it’s critical for children to have correct information from a reliable source, who in this case is you.
Hysteria about Ebola is more contagious than the disease itself. Parents in Texas, the only state with a confirmed infected patient who became symptomatic in the U.S., have pulled their children from schools for fear of infection.
Parents are understandably frightened; this is a lethal disease for which we currently have no vaccine. But for many reasons, it’s important to share kid-appropriate, accurate medical information with the children in our lives.
Here are the facts:
- Ebola is an exceptionally deadly disease. The World Health Organization estimates that the virus has killed about 70 percent of people infected in West Africa. Ebola can spread quickly if not taken seriously. No question: this disease is terrifying.
- Fortunately, it is hard to become infected with the virus that causes Ebola – especially compared to other contagious diseases. Ebola isn’t spread through the air, like chicken pox or flu. Ebola is spread only through direct contact with bodily fluids such as vomit, diarrhea and blood.
- Even in the current epidemic in West Africa, where the virus has spiraled out of control due to fear, misinformation, unsanitary conditions, and lack of medical resources, each person who has gotten sick has spread Ebola to only about two others on average. Comparatively, every person who has measles spreads the disease to roughly 18 people. Now, if 100 people are exposed, and they contaminate 200, and they spread it to 400, obviously the doubling effect will mean many sick people and too many deaths. But the good news remains: Ebola is not nearly as contagious as many other contagious diseases.
- People infected with Ebola only spread the virus while they are actively showing symptoms. The symptoms are straightforward: fever 101.5°F; severe headache; muscle pain; weakness; diarrhea and vomiting; unexplained hemorrhagic bleeding or bruising.
- Infected people are contagious only for about a week. Compare this to HIV, where a person is infectious to others for years.
- The spread of Ebola is relatively easy to contain in a country with good sanitation and lots of good hospitals, like the United States. To stop Ebola from spreading, health workers and public health officials have one relatively simple task: to get the people possibly infected into isolation before these people show signs of Ebola. Since the virus requires close contact with the aforementioned bodily fluids, health care workers and other caregivers who use gloves, masks, and other protective coverings can avoid exposure even if they are in contact with patients sick with Ebola
- So in Texas, the relatives of the man with Ebola have been quarantined to keep them from spreading the disease to others. Again, Ebola spreads only when two big “ifs” occur: if a person is infected, and if he or she is currently shedding the virus.
If people in the U.S. contain the spread of Ebola, it will never become a serious health problem. We all, including children, have good reason to educate ourselves about Ebola, and to be cautious, since Ebola is so lethal. But it’s critical to note that Ebola is out of control in Africa precisely because of fear and misinformation about how, when, and why the disease spreads.
What won’t help anyone, especially not impressionable children, is for misinformed adults and other children to spread hysteria, fear and distortion instead of the facts. A lifelong, crippling anxiety about infection and death, formed at a young age, can do more harm to more people than any virus.