Facts About Ebola
Ebola is a serious virus; however, it's important to know that it is far less contagious than many other organisms, like measles and influenza. Since 2014, West Africa has experienced the largest outbreak of Ebola in history.
The Infectious Diseases Preparedness Working Group, a sub-committee of the Emergency Management Operations Team, recognizes that many members of the Columbia community have questions and concerns. Below, see our answers to several common questions.
We will continue to update this information periodically. See all University announcements on this topic.
Note: 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) for detailed information about protocols, precautions, training and resources that apply to them.
Note: The University has issued a Policy for Travel to and Visits from Ebola-affected Countries, which provides guidance for both University affiliates who must travel to the affected region, and for non-affiliated visitors to the University who are arriving from the affected region.
Common Questions 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) 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.
Further Information and Resources
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 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: