The diagnosis of Ebola in the U.S. has put the nation on edge. Missteps by the Texas hospital that treated an infected man who came to Dallas from Liberia have eroded many Americans’ confidence in the country’s ability to prevent an outbreak.
But many health experts stress it’s far easier to catch the panic over Ebola than the virus itself. Contracting the illness requires direct contact with the body fluids of an infected individual. Most Americans know this, but misconceptions persist, according to a new survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation.
A third of those surveyed were not aware they could not become infected through the air, while about 45 percent didn’t realize they could not contract Ebola by shaking hands with someone exposed to the virus but who does not have symptoms. Only a little over a third of respondents knew an individual must show symptoms of Ebola to transmit the infection, the survey found.
With all the confusion, many have grown worried about an exotic virus that poses far less of a threat to most of us than commonplace bugs such as the flu.
So we asked several Maine health experts for their advice: If Mainers take one step to protect themselves against contagious illness right now, what should it be?
Dr. Robert Pinsky, hospital epidemiologist, Eastern Maine Medical Center, Bangor
“Get the influenza vaccine. If I have to pick one thing, that’s really the greatest risk to most people.”
So far, the U.S. has recorded three cases of Ebola contracted on American soil: the Texas patient and two nurses who cared for him. By comparison, the flu claims nearly 50,000 lives a year in the U.S. and sends 200,000 people to the hospital, according to estimates by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Unlike Ebola, for which there’s no vaccine, the flu almost always can be prevented with a flu shot.
The seasonal flu has officially arrived in Maine, and health experts urge everyone over 6 months old to get vaccinated against the illness. The flu can pose a serious risk, particularly for the elderly, children, and people with underlying disease.
While many of us associate the flu with a week of misery, the virus can kill. Weakened by the flu, the body’s immune system may falter in the face of other infections, such as those caused by bacteria. If a bacterial infection takes hold in the lungs, pneumonia can develop, potentially leading to life-threatening breathing complications.
The efficacy of the flu vaccine varies from season to season, but “it’s quite effective, it’s safe and it’s important,” Pinsky said. Health officials say this year’s immunization should offer good protection.
Pinsky also recommends staying up to date on all vaccinations, including against measles and whooping cough.
Dr. Sheila Pinette, director, Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention
“We need to practice good hand washing with soap for 20 seconds, good respiratory etiquette, cough into your shoulder, stay home if you are ill or have a fever, and get your flu vaccine.”
Pinette covers a few bases with her answer. Good hand-washing hygiene remains one of the best ways doctors know of to remove a variety of germs, avoid getting sick and prevent the spread of germs to other people. The U.S. CDC even likens it to a “do-it-yourself vaccine.”
Washing your hands can reduce your chances of catching everything from the common cold to salmonella to norovirus. Also known as the stomach-turning “winter vomiting disease,” norovirus kills up to 800 people each year and sends more than 50,000 Americans to the hospital. The U.S. CDC estimates that about one in every 15 Americans will get sick with norovirus each year.
Dr. August Valenti, infectious disease specialist, Maine Medical Center, Portland
“Practice consistent and good hand hygiene, and avoid touching your face.”
Another vote for clean hands. Why should you keep them away from your face? Each time you touch your eyes, nose or mouth, you can transfer bacteria and viruses from your hands. If you avoid touching your face, those germs are more likely to linger outside the body on your skin.
A 2012 study found that people touch their faces an average of 3.6 times an hour — much more frequently than we wash our hands.
In the face of the novel threat posed by Ebola, grabbing a bar of soap or pulling up sleeve for a flu shot might feel mundane. But health experts widely agree both go a long way toward preventing diseases you might actually catch.