Over the past decade, numerous infectious diseases have shown up in the United States including SARS in 2003, H1N1 or ‘swine flu’ in 2009, MERS and enterovirus D68, and now, the Ebola virus. For Ebola, the 2014 epidemic is the largest outbreak in history. With Ebola being an exotic disease, Americans never thought we would see much more of this disease other than what we’ve seen happening in the news in West Africa. But since Ebola has made its way to the states, we must take this as an opportunity to realize that the U.S. is not invincible to such infectious diseases. While the likelihood of a widespread Ebola outbreak in the U.S. is low, it is important to know that it remains a possibility because recent events have shown us how easily infectious disease can make its way into our country. 

No reason for panic

The fear that men in hazmat suits will eventually be knocking on your door could do more harm to your health than the actual risk you face of contracting Ebola. In fact, for most Americans, your odds of even contracting Ebola are significantly lower than your odds of having heart disease, cancer, stroke, a motor vehicle accident, assault by firearm, or an air travel accident to name a few. Therefore, there is no reason for us to panic. Ebola actually represents a small percentage of the deadly infectious diseases around the world. According to Seattle BioMed, here is the Ebola epidemic put in to context:

According to the World Health Organization, since Ebola’s first outbreak in the 1970s through the most recent case in Texas, the total number of deaths from Ebola is approximately 5,000.

By the end of the 2014, deaths from this year’s Ebola outbreak will make up less than 0.02 percent of all deaths from infectious diseases.

Sixteen percent of all deaths worldwide are from infectious diseases – most of which are in developing countries and are a result of preventable and treatable diseases such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, diarrhea and tuberculosis.

Despite these statistics, it is important to understand that Ebola and many other deadly infectious diseases continue to run rampant in developing countries, such as West Africa, where poverty remains high.

  • HIV/AIDS – the largest killer. In 2012, 1.6 million people died from HIV/AIDS and an estimated 2.3 million people worldwide were newly infected with HIV.
  • Tuberculosis – the second largest killer. In 2012, 8.6 million people contracted the disease and 1.3 million died from the disease.
  • Malaria – In 2012, approximately 200 million people suffered from malaria and an estimated 627,000 people died from the disease.

In developing countries, it is difficult to limit and completely eliminate these diseases because of:

  • Lack of education on how to prevent the spread of disease. Even if communities are educated, there remains a lack of access to basic, clean sanitation facilities - making it difficult to practice proper hygiene and prevent spread of disease.
  • Lack of funding to spend on or proper infrastructure for adequate healthcare.
  • Large and continuously growing population in areas where sanitary drinking water and food are scarce.
  • Lack of research system with data regarding disease-bearing organisms.
  • Low-income citizens and children are prone to malnutrition, making them more susceptible to infectious disease.

Therefore, low-cost treatments and vaccines are critical.

How to fight the risk of future outbreaks

Despite the low risk of a widespread Ebola outbreak in the U.S., it is still important to be aware of how easily an outbreak can happen. We can continue to increase the aggressiveness of screening at airports, create stricter guidelines regarding how to handle infectious disease at hospitals, and possibly even limit air travel to and from countries during an outbreak – but no matter how much the U.S. tries to isolate itself from infectious disease, these past couple of weeks have proven that we are not invincible to the health epidemics that less fortunate countries around us face. It is important that we work together to help ourselves and help each other fight the current battle.

Follow these steps to decrease your risk of exposing yourself or others to infectious disease:

  • Wash your hands – Especially before and after preparing food, before eating and after using the toilet.
  • Get vaccinated – Immunization can drastically reduce your chances of contracting diseases. Keep up to date on recommended vaccinations.
  • Don’t share personal items – Toothbrush, hairbrush, or razor, drinking glasses or utensils.
  • Stay home when sick – Don’t go to work if you are vomiting, have diarrhea or are running a fever. Don’t send your child to school if he or she has these signs or symptoms either.
  • Practice safe sex – Always use condoms if you or your partner has a history of sexually transmitted infections or high-risk behavior.
  • Prepare food safely – Keep counters and kitchen surfaces clean when preparing food. Cook foods to the proper temperature.
  • Travel responsibly – If you are traveling outside the country, talk to your doctor about any vaccinations you may need. Avoid traveling to areas with current outbreaks. If you come into contact with infectious disease abroad, monitor your health and take the safe and appropriate action in order to prevent possibly infecting others.

By being responsible and staying educated on how to prevent and handle infectious disease, we will stay safe and make a difference.  

Dr. Samadi is a board-certified urologic oncologist trained in open and traditional and laparoscopic surgery and is an expert in robotic prostate surgery. He is chairman of urology, chief of robotic surgery at Lenox Hill Hospital and professor of urology at Hofstra North Shore-LIJ School of Medicine. He is a medical correspondent for the Fox News Channel's Medical A-Team and the chief medical correspondent for am970 in New York City. Learn more at roboticoncology.com. Visit Dr. Samadi's blog at SamadiMD.com. Follow Dr. Samadi on Twitter and Facebook.