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Poll: Majority Of Americans Worried About U.S. Ebola Outbreak

An ambulance carrying Amber Vinson, the second health care worker to be diagnosed with Ebola in Texas, arrives at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on Wednesday.
David Tulis
An ambulance carrying Amber Vinson, the second health care worker to be diagnosed with Ebola in Texas, arrives at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta on Wednesday.

How are Americans sizing up the threat from Ebola?

A Harvard School of Public Health poll finds that more than a third of Americans (38 percent) are worried that Ebola will infect them or a family member over the next year.

Most (81 percent) believe Ebola can spread from someone who is sick and has symptoms. And that's correct.

Body fluids, such as blood, urine and feces, can carry the virus from one person to another. And almost all of the poll respondents (95 percent) agreed that direct contact with body fluids from a person with Ebola symptoms was likely to cause infection.

A large proportion (85 percent) of people believe the virus can be transmitted by a sneeze or cough. That's highly unlikely. "Common sense and observation tell us that spread of the virus via coughing or sneezing is rare, if it happens at all," the World Health Organization says.

Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, says there is no known case of Ebola being spread that way.

"I think the public has received Ebola 101, but not Ebola 102," he said of the Harvard poll results on Wednesday's All Things Considered. "Those kinds of subtleties actually are pretty hard to communicate."

The telephone poll of 1,004 adults was conducted Oct. 8-12. Thomas Eric Duncan died in Dallas the day the poll was put into the field. The death of the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. may have weighed on poll respondents.

More than half of them (52 percent) said they were worried about an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. within a year. When asked the same question in August, 39 percent of people polled said they were concerned about an Ebola outbreak here.

While there have been setbacks already in dealing with Ebola in the U.S., public health officials say the country can cope with the virus.

"As we learn from the recent importation case in Dallas and subsequent transmissions, and continue the public health response there, we remain confident that Ebola is not a significant public health threat to the United States," CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden said in written testimony submitted for a House oversight committee Thursday.

Ebola, he wrote, "is not transmitted easily, and it does not spread from people who are not ill, and cultural norms that contribute to the spread of the disease in Africa — such as burial customs and inadequate public-health measures — are not a factor in the United States. We know Ebola can be stopped with rapid diagnosis, appropriate triage and meticulous infection-control practices in American hospitals."

Americans appear confident that if someone in their community gets sick with Ebola, they will receive good care. Some 80 percent said that someone infected with Ebola would survive an infection if he or she got prompt medical care.

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Scott Hensley edits stories about health, biomedical research and pharmaceuticals for NPR's Science desk. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he has led the desk's reporting on the development of vaccines against the coronavirus.