Experts on Ebola

U-M scientists lend perspective to Ebola outbreak

Now that Ebola has made its way to the United States and health officials are beginning to predict its global spread, University of Michigan School of Public Health experts discuss the disease in a series of videos that address how it is transmitted, the likelihood of spread in this country, its severity, and questions about vaccines, quarantine, and isolation.

How contagious is Ebola? U-M School of Public Health researchers say Ebola is not as contagious as one might think. You can’t get it sitting next to someone on a bus, says Betsy Foxman, professor of epidemiology. It is spread through direct contact with bodily fluids in what Mark Wilson, professor of epidemiology, calls “unnatural circumstances.”

Could Ebola become more dangerous? In this video, researchers explain how a virus mutates, and what could happen if Ebola changes in how it is transmitted. “Most of the mutations have no effect or can even make the virus nonfunctional, but very occasionally, some mutations may change the way the virus behaves,” says Marisa Eisenberg, assistant professor of epidemiology.

How deadly is Ebola? While the number of people who die from Ebola has been high in some parts of the world, there are good techniques to contain the disease and to treat those who contract it. The key is access to early supportive care. “Ebola is a term that many people are frightened of when they hear it, but it’s actually been a disease we’ve known about for a number of decades,” says Dr. Eden Wells, an assistant professor of epidemiology.

Why is the current Ebola outbreak so severe? “One clear difference is that this is in urban areas, so, much higher density, requiring much more sophisticated infrastructure,” says Joseph Eisenberg, professor of epidemiology. And that essential public health infrastructure is not in place in countries that have experienced severe, sustained civil wars, as most of those impacted by the disease have, says Matthew Boulton, professor of epidemiology and senior associate dean for Global Public Health.

Why don’t we have an Ebola vaccine? Vaccines take a long time to be developed and until now the health community did not think Ebola would spread widely, says Arnold Monto, the Thomas Francis Jr. Collegiate Professor of Epidemiology. Even now, he says treatment should come first.

When do we quarantine or isolate for Ebola? Researchers explain the difference in these two means to protect others from the disease. Peter Jacobson, professor of health management and policy, talks about the balancing act between protecting those who may have been exposed and hindering freedom. The bottom line, says Monto: “We are going to have multiple false alarms, which is the price of being vigilant.”


  1. Cat Meyer

    My husband has had multiple ER visits due to a congenital disorder. I have not seen signs in the Emergency Dept at the Univ. of MI giving instructions to potential Ebola carriers for an alternate entry and isolated handling should their travel or exposure history indicate they are at risk.
    My concern is that a contaminated person could expose others casually by coughing in their hand and touching an elevator button or door and transmit the virus to the next hand that touches those types of “shared environmental exposures”.
    I would think a more dedicated entrance with a system of rooms to quarantine and isolate and protect and test possible patients on the outside of the hospital, not in the towers, would be a practical remodel for this type of biological crisis. Could rooms in the Old Mott (remove employee entrance or use the alternate access at the end of the hall off of Med Inn and Mott conjoin could be remodeled for this type of infectious threat. Employees could be routed through Children’s Hospital for this specialized care.
    Assignment to Ebola care should be across specialties and subspecialties, so an entire group of subspecialists are not wiped out should a mutation or handling accident provide unanticipated exposures.
    Do you have teams adequately Biohazard trained to handle this threat? Is there a support system to bring nourishment to all quarantined and isolated potential carriers and carriers?


  2. Robert Selwa - 1984

    I listened to the clips you made regarding the Ebola virus. You missed something important. How long is the incubation period between when one has contracted the virus and then develops symptoms? That’s important because in quarantining those exposed to the virus, which is the only real way to contain this outbreak, we have to know for how long before they are considered safe to return to society at large. As your one clip noted, there has to be a balance in restricting a person’s freedom, and the safety of the public’s health. Do you know this information yet? Thank you. (Interesting clip though.) Sincerely yours, Robert A. Selwa (84′) Anthroposophist


    • Eden Wells

      The incubation period used by public health officials is 21 days. The time from exposure to symptoms, incubation, was examined with early data from the outbreak recently in the WHO Report in the New England Journal of Medicine published October 16.
      This report shows that 95 percent of the cases had incubation periods within the 21-day period, fitting what has been used by public health officials to determine quarantine timelines since Ebola was discovered in 1976.
      I hope this helps. Please let me know if you have other questions or concerns,
      Eden V. Wells, MD, MPH, FACPM
      University of Michigan School of Public Health


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