Frequently Asked Questions
Check the Alerts and Announcements section of this site frequently to learn what you should do in case of an emergency. During an emergency, this section will be updated regularly with important information for the Columbia community.
Also, check the Be Prepared section to familiarize yourself with steps and resources you should know in advance of an emergency.
We update this website when there are any significant changes in the situation.
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Facts About Ebola
Ebola, also known as Ebola hemorrhagic fever, is a rare and deadly disease caused by infection with one of the Ebola virus strains. Ebola can cause disease in humans and nonhuman primates (monkeys, gorillas, and chimpanzees).
Ebola is caused by infection with a virus of the family Filoviridae, genus Ebolavirus. There are five identified Ebola virus species, four of which are known to cause disease in humans: Ebola virus (Zaire ebolavirus); Sudan virus (Sudan ebolavirus); Taï Forest virus (Taï Forest ebolavirus, formerly Côte d’Ivoire ebolavirus); and Bundibugyo virus (Bundibugyo ebolavirus). The fifth, Reston virus (Reston ebolavirus), has caused disease in nonhuman primates, but not in humans.
Ebola viruses are found in several African countries. Ebola was first discovered in 1976 near the Ebola River in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since then, outbreaks have appeared sporadically in Africa.
The natural reservoir host of Ebola virus remains unknown. However, on the basis of evidence and the nature of similar viruses, researchers believe that the virus is animal-borne and that bats are the most likely reservoir. Four of the five virus strains occur in an animal host native to Africa.
Unless you travel to an area affected by Ebola and are in contact with an Ebola-infected individual, most people are at extremely low risk. Ebola is not spread through the air or by water, or in general, by food. Even travelers to the affected places can be protected by taking appropriate precautions. Travelers to or from countries and regions of the world not affected by Ebola are not at risk.
Ebola is less contagious than measles or influenza, which are spread primarily through respiratory routes. Ebola is spread through direct contact (through broken skin or mucous membranes in, for example, the eyes, nose, or mouth) with the blood or other body fluids of a person who is sick with Ebola, or a person who has died of Ebola.
Ebola is less contagious than influenza, measles or the common cold. One important difference is that influenza and measles are spread primarily through respiratory routes, while Ebola is spread through body fluids. The main difference, and the root of the cause for concern in West Africa, is that the outbreaks have occurred in remote areas with insufficient public health and medical resources to effectively contain the spread of the Ebola virus. Those factors have contributed to a wider outbreak.
Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with the blood or body fluids (urine, saliva, sweat, feces, vomit, breast milk, and semen) of an infected symptomatic person, or though direct exposure to objects (such as needles) that have been contaminated with infected secretions.
No. To the best of our knowledge, individuals who are not symptomatic are not contagious. All known cases of Ebola infections have been linked to direct contact with people actively symptomatic or recently deceased from Ebola disease.
Ebola symptoms include:
- Joint and muscle aches
- Severe diarrhea
- Stomach pain
- Lack of appetite
- Abnormal bleeding
Unless you have had direct contact with or handled body fluids from someone who has Ebola symptoms, it is extremely unlikely that you could have Ebola. However, if you have a very high fever (102 F or above), or severe vomiting or diarrhea, it is always a good idea to swiftly contact your healthcare provider; you likely have a different illness.
For members of the Columbia community, the following healthcare resources are available:
- In a serious emergency, call 911.
- Columbia Health Services for Students:
Columbia Workforce Health and Safety for Faculty/Staff with Hospital Responsibilities:
- Morningside/CUMC: 212-305-7590 or x5-7590 (from a campus phone)
Clinical personnel, including faculty and staff at Columbia University Medical Center, should refer to the ColumbiaDoctors Intranet (https://secure.cumc.columbia.edu/columbiadoctors/ebola.html) or the NewYork-Presbyterian Infonet (http://infonet.nyp.org/EPI/Pages/EID.aspx) for detailed information about protocols, precautions, training and resources that apply to them.
You may also contact Workforce Health and Safety for Faculty/Staff with Hospital Responsibilities, Morningside/CUMC: 212-305-7590 or 305-7590 (from a campus phone) if you have other questions.
No. Currently there is no cause for concern for maintenance workers or cleaners. Although a case in the city has been confirmed, the risk to people in New York City and at Columbia remains extremely low. The patient is being treated while following all appropriate and necessary protocols.
If you have not had any close contact with the body fluids of someone who is showing symptoms, don’t worry. You are at extremely low risk. Remember, although a case in the city has been confirmed, the risk to people in New York City and at Columbia remains extremely low. The patient is being treated while following all appropriate and necessary protocols.
(Of course, we recommend that as a general rule you practice safe hygiene, such as covering your cough and washing your hands, to avoid contracting a different communicable disease.)
The University has published a travel advisory and related travel policy, with which all members of our community need to be familiar.
An essential part of Columbia’s core mission consists of connecting the knowledge and research of its students, faculty and research staff to the search for solutions to the major challenges facing our global community. The dimensions of the Ebola outbreak and its potential threat constitute just such a major challenge. Mindful both of the University’s service mission and of its responsibility to protect our community from the Ebola threat, the University has determined to restrict student, faculty, and staff travel to three West African countries for any purpose other than to contribute to efforts to contain and eliminate the Ebola outbreak.
CUMC experts in infectious disease and public health are keeping the public informed about the Ebola outbreak in Africa and the U.S., and the potential of the virus to spread. For the latest information from Columbia’s experts, visit:
- The New York City Department of Health Ebola update page is a central resource on the city's response.
The CDC has a comprehensive set of questions and answers, addressing concerns about outbreaks in the United States, travelers returning to the U.S., and U.S. hospital preparations, online at:
The White House has a fact list and series of questions and answers, online at:
Developed in partnership with the Mailman School of Public Health.
Additional sources: whitehouse.gov, cdc.gov.
The primary defense against influenza is immunization. Each fall, seasonal flu vaccine is available on campus to University students, faculty, and staff.
Members on the Morningside campus may visit the Columbia Health Flu page for information about getting an annual flu vaccinne.
Preventive hygiene, such as covering your cough and washing your hands, is also among the foremost protective measures everyone can take.
Influenza - "flu" - is widely familiar, causing epidemics every year. Influenza viruses spread very easily from person to person.
A pandemic is an influenza epidemic so large that the entire world is affected. Two main conditions are required for an influenza pandemic: the influenza virus strain must be novel to the human population (so that most of the population does not already have some immunity to it), and it must be able to spread efficiently from person to person.
Overall, nationally, the rates of people vaccinated against measles have been very stable since the national Vaccines for Children (VFC)program was introduced in 1994. In 2013, the overall national coverage for MMR vaccine among children aged 19 months-35 months was 91.9%. However, MMR vaccine coverage levels continue to vary by state. For example, in 10 states, 95% of the children aged 19 months-35 months in 2013 had received at least one dose of MMR vaccine, while in 17 other states, less than 90% of these children were vaccinated against measles.
At the county or lower levels, vaccine coverage rates may vary considerably. Pockets of unvaccinated people can exist in states with high vaccination coverage, underscoring considerable measles susceptibility at some local levels.
Yes, it is possible that measles could become endemic (constant presence of a disease in an area) in the United States again, especially if vaccine coverage levels in the United States decline. This can happen when people forget to get vaccinated on time, don’t know that they need a vaccine dose (this is most common among adults), or refuse vaccines for religious, philosophical or personal reasons.
Research shows that people who refuse vaccines often group together in communities. When measles gets into communities with pockets of unvaccinated people, controlling its spread is very challenging while also increasing the likelihood of the virus re-establishing itself in the U.S. For a CDC description of a recent example of this epidemiologic phenomenon, go to:
High sustained measles vaccine coverage and rapid public health response are critical for preventing and controlling measles cases and outbreaks.
Yes. Since measles is still common in many other countries, this disease will continue to be brought into the United States. Measles is highly contagious, so anyone who is not protected against measles is at risk of getting the disease. People who are unvaccinated for any reason, including those who refuse vaccination, risk getting infected with measles and spreading it to others, including those who cannot get vaccinated because they are too young or have specific health conditions.
If you’re unsure whether you’re immune to measles, you should first try to find your vaccination recordsor documentation of measles immunity. If you do not have written documentation of measles immunity, you should get vaccinated with measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine. Another option is to have a doctor test your blood to determine whether you’re immune, but this option is likely to cost more, won’t necessarily be covered by your health insurance, and may take two doctor’s visits. There is no harm in getting another dose of MMR vaccine if you may already be immune to measles (or mumps or rubella).
No. People who received two doses of measles vaccine as children according to the U.S. vaccination schedule are considered protected for life and do not ever need a booster dose.
If you’re not sure whether you were vaccinated, talk with your doctor. More information is available from the CDC about who needs measles vaccine.
Very few people—about 3 out of 100—who get two doses of measles vaccine will still get measles if exposed to the virus. Experts aren’t sure why; it could be that their immune systems didn’t respond as well as they should have to the vaccine. But the good news is, fully vaccinated people who get measles are much more likely to have a milder illness, and they are also less likely to spread the disease to other people, including people who can’t get vaccinated because they are too young or have weakened immune systems.
The measles vaccine is very effective. One dose of measles vaccine is about 93% effective at preventing measles if exposed to the virus and two doses are about 97% effective.
In 2008, 2011, 2013 and 2014, there were more reported measles cases compared with previous years. CDC experts attribute this to:
· More measles cases than usual in some countries to which Americans often travel (such as England, France, Germany, India, the Philippines and Vietnam), and therefore more measles cases coming into the US, and/or
· More spreading of measles in U.S. communities with pockets of unvaccinated people.
For details about the increase in cases by year, see the CDC’s Measles Outbreakspage.
Measles can be brought into the United States from any country where the disease remains endemic or where outbreaks are occurring including Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Islands. In recent years, many measles cases have been brought into the United States from common U.S. travel destinations, such as England, France, Germany, India, and, during 2014, from the Philippines and Vietnam.
Before the measles vaccination program started in 1963, the CDC estimates that about 3 to 4 million people got measles each year in the United States. Of those people, 400 to 500 died, 48,000 were hospitalized, and 4,000 developed encephalitis (brain swelling) from measles.
Every year, measles is brought into the U.S. by unvaccinated travelers (Americans or foreign visitors) who get measles while they are in other countries. They can spread measles to other people who are not protected against measles, which sometimes leads to outbreaks. This can occur in communities with unvaccinated people.
Most people in the United States are protected against measles through vaccination, so measles cases in the U.S. are far fewer than the number of cases before a vaccine was available.
Since 2000, when measles was declared eliminated from the U.S., the annual number of people reported to have measles ranged from a low of 37 people in 2004 to a high of 644 people in 2014.
Measles eliminationis defined as the absence of continuous disease transmission for 12 months or more in a specific geographic area. Although there are current outbreaks, measles is no longer endemic (constantly present) in the United States.
In 2000, the U.S. declared that measles was eliminated from this country. The U.S. was able to eliminate measles because it has a highly effective measles vaccine, a strong vaccination program that achieves high vaccine coverage in children and a strong public health system for detecting and responding to measles cases and outbreaks.