Ebola: What Average People Can Do

The ebola epidemic has reached the United States and at least one country in Europe, although so far it does not look much like an epidemic in either place. (Four people confirmed to have fallen ill in the United States and one in Spain, as opposed to a few thousand in west Africa.) In the middle of all the frightening news, no national health agency (not even the U.S. CDC) has posted a list of effective simple measures that average people can take to protect themselves and their families. There are two reasons for this fact:

  1. The average person who does not live in west Africa and is not a health care worker has a miniscule chance of ever being exposed to ebola.
  2. National health agenices such as the U.S. CDC need (and mostly don’t have) PR departments that understand how simple information fights panic about a deadly disease, not just the disease itself.

If any of the following cases applies to you, then I suggest that you talk with your doctor. He or she will know what measures you should take.

  • You have recently been in contact with somebody who has, or was later diagnosed with, ebola.
  • You have recently returned from a trip to west Africa, or you live in the same household with somebody who has.
  • You work in a health care facility where ebola patients might seek treatment, such as most urgent care centers or hospitals, or you live in the same household with somebody who does.
  • You have children in school with other children who live in households with somebody who meets one of the previous criteria.

As long as none of the previous cases applies to you, your chances of being exposed to ebola are effectively zero. Allowing fear of ebola to keep you from going to work and living your life normally will just screw up the next few weeks or months til the epidemic dies back down, as ebola epidemics always do. However, if you tend to be paranoid (I do), telling yourself these things probably doesn’t help. Fortunately, there are real things that you can do to keep yourself, your home, your car, and your work environment free of ebola, other viruses, bacteria, and molds. They’re cheap, relatively simple, and do the job.

The “secret” is this: rubbing alcohol, bleach, and several other common household disinfectants used in normal dilution strengths kill the ebola virus dead in seconds. If you use these substances carefully to clean and disinfect your hands, clothes, house and car, you will not harm yourself or your property.

  • Isopropryl alcohol. You can buy isopropyl alcohol (often called “rubbing alcohol”) inexpensively in pint or quart containers at most drugstores. Do not dilute isopropyl alcohol: use full strength. For disinfecting skin, hard surfaces, and clothing. Soak hands or clothing in alcohol, or soak a clean sponge or paper towel and wipe hard surfaces such as door knobs, cabinet handles, hot- and cold-water faucet knobs, or surfaces where tooth brushes and other intimate cleaning equipment is stored. Allow alcohol to dry on the surface. Does not leave harmful residue.

    At home or at work, you can use the alcohol-based hand sanitizers sold in drugstores and supermarkets to sterilize your hands after you wash them. You can also buy alcohol wipes at the supermarket, to use on door handles and in public restrooms.

    WARNING! Do not drink isopropyl alcohol. It is poisonous.

  • Hydrogen peroxide. You can buy hydrogen peroxide in 3% solutions inexpensively in pint or quart containers at most drugstores. Do not dilute 3% hydrogen peroxide solution; use full strength. Use as you would isopropyl alcohol on skin or hard surfaces. Avoid eyes, hair, clothing and porous surfaces to prevent irritation, bleaching, or damage to finishes.

  • NOTE: Do not drink hydrogen peroxide. It can burn your mouth and throat.

  • Chlorine bleach. This is household bleach that you buy in half-gallon or gallon jugs at the supermarket or wherever you buy laundry soap. Use in a 1/10 dilution to clean and disinfect hard surfaces or to wash white or light-colored sturdy fabrics like towels and sheets. A 1/10 concentration means one part (such as a cup) of bleach to ten parts water. Chlorine bleach in this concentration will kill ebola and most other viruses or bacteria that it touches almost immediately.

    The bleach wipes that are sold at most supermarkets work well for sterilizing door knobs, faucet handles, and toilet flushes in the bathroom. You can also use an eyedropper to put two or three drops of bleach in a gallon of water, and then let the water sit overnight or for a few hours to kill ebola, most other viruses, most bacteria, and most fungus such as yeast. This amount of bleach in water is safe to drink, but you can put the water in a transparent container, such as a clear plastic jug or pitcher, and then let it sit in the sun for an hour or two to break down and remove the bleach.

    NOTE: Do not drink undiluted bleach or strong bleach solutions, and do not use bleach on human skin. It can cause irritation and, if too concentrated, can burn mucous membranes.

I was unable to find good information on what concentrations of ammonia or common household soaps is needed to be sure you kill ebola and other viruses, so I did not include them on this list. If I find that information, I will update the list later.

Your chances of catching ebola while living in the United States or most countries outside of west Africa are tiny. But most of us don’t find long odds nearly as reassuring as we should. If you tend to worry, take a few additional precautions such as these, and then give yourself permission not to worry anymore about catching ebola. Instead, send some money to Doctors without Borders or another health care charity that is working to save ebola patients in west Africa and elsewhere where people have a much greater chance of catching ebola, and much fewer resources to fight it.

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