Aug 04 2014
It is natural for there to be a certain amount of fear and uncertainty surrounding the reported outbreak of a deadly virus. The recent ebola outbreak is the worst in history, with over 800 deaths reported out of over 1,400 infections (case fatality rate so far of 57%).
Crises like these tend to bring out the best and the worst in people. Health care workers are literally risking their lives to contain this outbreak. Meanwhile, charlatans are coming out of the woodwork to exploit the crisis to spread their nonsense.
Ebola was first discovered in 1976. The virus exists in central and western Africa, and outbreaks are usually small, involving isolated villages. The virus can exist in fruit bats, which is the usual reservoir that spreads to humans. Other animals can be the vector, however, including chimpanzees, gorillas, monkeys, forest antelope and porcupines. Once a human infection occurs, however, the virus can spread from person to person.
Transmission is through contact of bodily fluids, such as blood. It is not airborne. The WHO reports:
EVD is a severe acute viral illness often characterized by the sudden onset of fever, intense weakness, muscle pain, headache and sore throat. This is followed by vomiting, diarrhoea, rash, impaired kidney and liver function, and in some cases, both internal and external bleeding. Laboratory findings include low white blood cell and platelet counts and elevated liver enzymes.
People are infectious as long as their blood and secretions contain the virus. Ebola virus was isolated from semen 61 days after onset of illness in a man who was infected in a laboratory.
The incubation period, that is, the time interval from infection with the virus to onset of symptoms, is 2 to 21 days.
Outbreaks are usually small because the illness is so acute. People get very obviously sick quickly, and most die. This outbreak is unusual because it has spread so far.
Unless you live in one of the outbreak areas in western Africa, you have little to fear from ebola. You are far more likely to die from the flu. Still, there are those willing to exploit fear of the virus to sell their pseudoscience.
Several outlets are selling essential oils for protection from Ebola. This site claims:
Thieves oil can be diffused to kill airborne microbes, applied topically on the skin to help the body fight off infection, and also used internally in homemade capsules. If Ebola was going around in my area, I would diffuse Thieves oil daily for 15 minutes every few hours. I would apply it to my feet and armpits 2x/day or more and take it in capsules at least 2x/day for preventive purposes.
Essential oils are essentially snake oil. They are used as drugs, either topically, inhaled, or orally, but without sufficient scientific evidence to back up their claims. There are no studies showing that Thieves oil can treat or prevent viral infections, let alone ebola.
Of course, homeopaths would have you rely on magic water to “cure” ebola. This site recommends:
1. Crolatus horridus (rattlesnake venom) 2. Bothrops (yellow viper) 3. Lachesis (bushmaster snake) 4. Phosphorus 5. Merc. cor.
Of course, first you have to dilute these out of existence. The homeopath warns:
We are once again faced with a virus that is poised sweep our country.
No, we’re not. Another site reassures its readers:
While this type of disease may seem far away from us now, bioterrorism is always a threat in today’s world, and with the ease of travel, it would not be difficult for a disease like Ebola to spread.
In the case of Ebola, no conventional treatment or vaccine is available. Fortunately for us, homeopathy has great renown for its healing ability in epidemics.
This is the two-part strategy of the con man – maximize fear, then offer a magical solution.
Ebola is not a chronic illness with waxing and waning symptoms. It is an acute deadly illness. It takes a certain amount of delusional chutzpah to claim that your magic water can “cure” it.
Such claims also bring into sharp relief some of the potential harm of believing in medical pseudoscience. CAM is not all benign warm-and-fuzzy treatments for quality of life. Many proponents believe in pseudoscience down to their core, and if they were set lose, they would replace science-based medicine with snake oil.
Of course, there is no effective specific treatment for ebola, or vaccine for prevention, which is why it is a tempting target for the charlatans. Treatment involves supportive intensive care. Immediate medical attention is critical.
Prevention is about avoiding exposure, properly dealing with those already infected and disposing of the dead and any infected fluids.
While this isn’t much, reason-based practitioners will eventually contain this outbreak as they have those before it. Homeopathy, essential oil, wishful thinking, and magic will add nothing to this effort, and the extent to which anyone believes that these treatments work will only increase their risk.
Finally, conspiracy theories about ebola are spreading faster than the virus. When anything bad happens in the world, conspiracy theorists simply make up crazy nonsense about it. Ebola, they claim, is a bioweapon. (If so, it’s a terrible bioweapon.) Why? Because conspiracy.
Ebola is a deadly virus and a challenge to infectious disease experts. Still, I would put my trust in science, as limited as it is at this point, rather than magic and nonsense.
Further ebola information from David Gorski at Science-Based Medicine
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