Ebola is a communicable disease, an illness caused by infectious agents that are spread through either direct or indirect contact of an infected person or animal to someone else.
“First of all, people wisely are afraid of communicable diseases,” said Dr. Myron Cohen, chief of the UNC Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the UNC Institute for Global Health & Infectious Diseases.
“It is not a new idea for our species to be afraid.”
Stacy Shelp, spokeswoman for the Orange County Health Department, said the department’s goal is to be prepared to keep residents as safe as possible.
“The name of the game is being prepared,” Shelp said. “You definitely don’t want to be reactionary.”
A man who had developed a fever after returning from Liberia was admitted to Duke University Hospital on Nov. 2. The following morning, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services announced that the patient’s preliminary test results were negative for Ebola.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed the negative test result.
Shelp said the health department has been preparing for a situation like this since July.
“Orange County has actually been working since July to not only develop a plan but to actually train and put the plan in to action,” Shelp said.
“This is not new to us, and we have been very actively involved since the beginning.”
Leslie O’Connor, public health preparedness coordinator with the county health department, said in an effort to combat the Ebola virus, she has been conducting trainings for several of the health department’s local partners.
“The communication began with our local partners back in July that this could potentially become a real threat and that we needed to start practicing,” she said.
Orange County Emergency Services has also been working to better handle the public’s concern over Ebola.
“Isolation and supportive care are the only treatments for the Ebola virus,” O’Connor said.
“There is no cure for Ebola; there is no vaccine. We’re certain that their plans are probably the best they could be for this patient.”
For now, Cohen said isolation is the best option.
“Quarantines are not meant to deprive people of their rights but meant to create a much simpler situation for the person,” Cohen said. “The disaster is if someone comes back, they’re wandering around, and a lot of people get exposed.”
The CDC reports that Ebola virus was first discovered in 1976, and since its discovery, outbreaks of the virus have occurred intermittently in Africa.
Cohen said Ebola is believed to have originated in a species of bat in West Africa and became communicable, or transmissible from one human to another, after the virus infected a human host.
In 2014, cases of Ebola virus began to accumulate in West Africa, particularly in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The World Health Organzation reports that as of Nov. 2, a total of 13,042 cases have been reported this year in West Africa.
The N.C. DHHS reports that there have been a total of four confirmed cases of Ebola in the United States and one death resulting from the virus. No cases have been confirmed in North Carolina.
Cohen said there are three reasons why Ebola virus evokes so much fear in the general public.
“Number one: We don’t know all the rules,” Cohen said. “We don’t know everything about it. We haven’t had an epidemic, so we’re learning the rules as we go along.
“Number two: It makes people sick as shit and is fatal most of the time.
“Number three: People will get much more comfortable once we have biological intervention,” Cohen said. “For Ebola, we’re trying to develop pills very quickly. Our only strategy for prevention is quarantine. And it’s effective, but it’s difficult.”
Cohen said although evidence suggests the virus can only be transmitted through direct contact, there are still some concerns.
“Sometimes an infectious agent can be transmitted on inanimate objects,” Cohen said. “The best example of this is Norovirus. Ebola, one of the concerns, is how much can inanimate objects hold the virus.”
Cohen said people should recognize how hard North Carolina has been working to prepare for Ebola.
“The state of North Carolina and hospitals of North Carolina have been preparing for this,” Cohen said.
“Duke and UNC have been working together with the state on this problem.”
Cohen said the UNC Center for Infectious Diseases is always prepared for new diseases to emerge.
“For people who do this for a living, it’s never calm,” Cohen said.
“We’re not allowed the luxury of panic. We’re more orderly about thinking this through.”
The Orange County Health Department might be taking precautions against Ebola, but Cohen said residents should not be distressed.
“People in Orange County do not need to be afraid about Ebola.”