The outbreak of Ebola in Western Africa has struck fear into visitors to the region. The disease has a fatality rate of up to 90 percent, so travelers need to understand just how the virus spreads.
Ebola is not an airborne illness like SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), which spreads easily in contained spaces, including subways and airplanes, and whose global outbreak in 2003 actually posed a bigger threat to travelers.
In contrast, Ebola spreads only through contact with bodily fluids, including saliva, blood, vomit and even sweat. So it is much easier to contain, and outbreaks have typically been limited to rural areas.
But Ebola is much deadlier than SARS, so people should not come into direct contact with anyone who might be infected or with anything an infected person might have handled. Travelers should also avoid health care workers who have been working to contain the disease.
The recent outbreak has spread to city centers and multiple countries in Western Africa, causing concern about a greater outbreak, which would take months to contain.
While your odds of getting Ebola are very slim, here’s what you need to do when traveling:
Avoid areas in Western Africa where the outbreak has been reported: These include Ghana, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Nigeria and Liberia. Historically, the greatest outbreaks have been been reported across these countries, although Nigeria has seen less than a dozen cases as this article was being completed.
Keep track of airline policies focused on containing the outbreak: Some airlines, including British Airways and Emirates, canceled flights to West Africa earlier this month. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has issued guidelines to American carriers, instructing them on what to look out for and how to manage any potential issues related to the disease, whose incubation period can be as long as 22 days.
Monitor the CDC website: The Centers for Disease Control has regular updates and recommendations about Ebola on its website. It also includes postings from the Transportation Security Administration about any health-related travel risks (like Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). TSA also posts health advisories for travelers in U.S. airports.
Be aware of health risks when traveling: These risks vary by country and by region, and they require precautions, such as vaccinations, to avoid specific conditions. Consult a travel agent who is an expert in the area you are traveling to, as well as the World Health Organization (WHO) website, which provides a list of infectious diseases to be aware of when abroad. You also can consult the WHO website for health-related updates by country and region.
Wash your hands often and be careful what you touch: It is always important to observe basic rules of hygiene whenever and wherever you travel.
Know that the Ebola outbreak is not occurring in most of Africa: Most importantly, understand that Ebola is not currently affecting destinations in Africa that most tourists visit, including South Africa, Botswana, Kenya, Tanzania, Egypt, Morocco, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Uganda and Rwanda.
Make sure you buy travel insurance before you travel: Travel insurance is not only cancellation insurance. It typically covers trip interruption or delay due to illness or injury, as well as severe weather. Look for policies that include medical expenses for emergencies. Some policies provide special assistance services, including emergency medical transport. Travel insurance typically is 5 to 8 percent of the total trip cost. While travel insurance is not a preventative measure against the Ebola virus, it may make it easier in the unfortunate event that a member of your group is struck by any illness.