How You Can And Can't Get Ebola: Here Are The Facts About How Ebola Spreads
04 November 2014
By Matthew Liddy
As Ebola spreads from West Africa to isolated cases in
Europe and the United States, so too do rumours and
myths about how the disease is transmitted - many of
them perpetuated on social media.
Here are the facts about how Ebola spreads, as
outlined by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the
US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),
and other official bodies.
get Ebola through the air
Ebola is not an airborne disease like influenza or
chicken pox, and the WHO has categorically said
reports suggesting that Ebola has mutated and become
airborne are false.
"Airborne spread among humans implies inhalation of an
infectious dose of virus from a suspended cloud of
small dried droplets," it says.
"This mode of transmission has not been observed
during extensive studies of the Ebola virus over
get Ebola through water
Ebola does not contaminate water supplies like cholera
or dysentery do.
You cannot get Ebola from someone who is not already
The virus only appears in people's bodily fluids after
they already have symptoms, so a carrier can't
unknowingly spread it before they feel sick.
"The time from exposure to when signs or symptoms of
the disease appear - the incubation period - is two to
21 days but the average time is eight to 10 days," the
"Signs of Ebola include fever - higher than 38.6
degrees Celsius - and symptoms like severe headache,
muscle pain, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, or
unexplained bleeding or bruising."
You cannot get Ebola from mosquitos
It isn't carried by insects the way dengue fever or
Ross River fever are.
"There is no evidence that mosquitos or other insects
can transmit Ebola virus," the CDC says. "Only mammals
- for example, humans, bats, monkeys and apes - have
shown the ability to spread and become infected with
get Ebola from properly cooked food
Although Ebola has spread through the hunting,
butchering and preparation of bush meat in Africa, it
can't be transmitted through properly cooked food.
"If food products are properly prepared and cooked,
humans cannot become infected by consuming them: the
Ebola virus is inactivated through cooking," the WHO
You can get Ebola from direct contact with the bodily
fluids of an infectious person
This is the
main method of transmission.
You can get Ebola if the blood, saliva, sweat, vomit,
urine, semen or other bodily fluids of a sick person
comes into direct contact with your broken skin or
mucous membranes such as the mouth, nose, eyes or
Therefore, activities such as kissing, sharing food or
having sex with an infectious person all provide
potential for transmission. Needles are also a risk
the most infectious bodily fluids are blood, faeces
"The viral load in these fluids is enormous," notes
Dominic Dwyer, the director of the Centre for
Infectious Diseases in Sydney.
This means that healthcare workers who are treating
Ebola patients, and the family and friends of infected
people, are at the highest risk of getting sick.
If a person recovers from Ebola - the fatality rate in
the current outbreak is about 70 per cent - sexual
contact can remain risky.
"Men who have recovered from the disease can still
transmit the virus through their semen for up to seven
weeks after recovery from illness," the WHO says.
You can get
Ebola from touching an infected surface
The Ebola virus can survive outside the body, so
coming into direct contact with infected bodily fluids
on surfaces such as bedding, clothing or furniture and
then touching your eyes or mouth can spread the
"Ebola is killed with hospital-grade disinfectants,
such as household bleach," the CDC says.
"Ebola on dried on surfaces such as doorknobs and
countertops can survive for several hours, however
[the] virus in body fluids such as blood can survive
up to several days at room temperature."
The virus can also survive on the skin of an infected
person for several days, even after their death. The
UK's National Health Service says this has meant
traditional African burial rituals have played a part
in Ebola's spread.
"The Ebola virus can survive for several days outside
the body, including on the skin of an infected person,
and it's common practice for mourners to touch the
body of the deceased," the NHS says. "They only then
need to touch their mouth to become infected."
(theoretically) get Ebola if an infectious person
sneezes on you
"Common sense and observation tell us that spread of
the virus via coughing or sneezing is rare, if it
happens at all," the WHO says.
"Theoretically, wet and bigger droplets from a heavily
infected individual, who has respiratory symptoms
caused by other conditions or who vomits violently,
could transmit the virus – over a short distance – to
another nearby person.
"This could happen when virus-laden heavy droplets are
directly propelled, by coughing or sneezing (which
does not mean airborne transmission) onto the mucus
membranes or skin with cuts or abrasions of another
"WHO is not aware of any studies that actually
document this mode of transmission. On the contrary,
good quality studies from previous Ebola outbreaks
show that all cases were infected by direct close
contact with symptomatic patients."
You can get
Ebola from infected wild animals
In Africa, Ebola has spread to humans who eat infected
wild animals without properly cooking them, or who
otherwise come into contact with the bodily fluids of
infected wild animals.
"It is thought that fruit bats of the Pteropodidae
family are natural Ebola virus hosts," the WHO says.
"Ebola is introduced into the human population through
close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or
other bodily fluids of infected animals such as
chimpanzees, gorillas, fruit bats, monkeys, forest
antelope and porcupines found ill or dead or in the
don't typically just 'go airborne'
Speculation that Ebola virus disease might mutate into
a form that could easily spread among humans through
the air is just that: speculation, unsubstantiated by
any evidence. --- World Health Organisation
In case you missed it, it bears repeating that Ebola
is not an airborne disease.
The WHO also says viruses are not known for suddenly
"becoming airborne", as some reports suggest Ebola has
"Scientists are unaware of any virus that has
dramatically changed its mode of transmission," the
"For example, the H5N1 avian influenza virus, which
has caused sporadic human cases since 1997, is now
endemic in chickens and ducks in large parts of Asia.
"That virus has probably circulated through many
billions of birds for at least two decades. Its mode
of transmission remains basically unchanged.
"Speculation that Ebola virus disease might mutate
into a form that could easily spread among humans
through the air is just that: speculation,
unsubstantiated by any evidence."
Dr Dwyer from Sydney's Centre for Infectious Diseases
says the pace of the current Ebola outbreak is in
itself evidence that the disease is not airborne.
"The 'slowness' of spread in the current Ebola
outbreak is against respiratory transmission being a
major factor: the 2009 pandemic influenza virus,
spread by respiratory droplets, had become worldwide
in a comparable timeframe," he explains.
Numerous reports and social media posts have cited a
2012 study that found Ebola spread from pigs to
monkeys without any direct contact as evidence the
virus has "gone airborne".
However, the Canadian scientists behind that study
themselves said the form of transmission they observed
was not similar to influenza or other infections.
"If it was really an airborne virus like influenza is
it would spread all over the place, and that's not
happening," Dr Gary Kobinger from the Public Health
Agency in Canada told the BBC in 2012.
"What we suspect is happening is large droplets - they
can stay in the air, but not long, they don't go far,"
"But they can be absorbed in the airway and this is
how the infection starts, and this is what we think,
because we saw a lot of evidence in the lungs of the
non-human primates that the virus got in that way."
Oh, and Ebola
zombies aren't real either
In recent days, reports that three people who died
from Ebola later rose from the dead have spread widely
across social media: one report alone has been shared
more than 500,000 times on Twitter and Facebook.
It really should go without saying, but it is not
Snopes, the Independent, the Huffington Post and many,
many others have the full debunking.
But honestly, there are better things to do with your
time. Like go find out more about some real mental