The risk of catching Ebola is highest among people who provide home care for patients in the late stages of the disease and those who prepare the bodies of victims for burial, a new study finds.
The chances of Ebola transmission in the general community are low, according to the researchers at the University of East Anglia in England. Even living in the same home as an infected person does not pose a significant risk, as long as there is no direct contact, they found.
They also said that changing funeral practices in Africa during Ebola outbreaks — particularly to allow cremation — could help halt the spread of the disease.
“This research strengthens the evidence base for dealing with this deadly disease. Importantly, we provide a more nuanced understanding of the risks — and particularly the risks associated with indirect contact,” lead researcher Paul Hunter, a professor at the university’s Norwich Medical School, said in a university news release.
For their study on Ebola infection risk factors, the researchers analyzed 31 reports of Ebola in 10 countries, mostly in Africa, since 1967. Much of the information came from interviews with survivors, those close to them and from medical records.
The findings were published online Nov. 20 in the International Journal of Epidemiology.
“Our research shows that Ebola is not very infectious in the general community, and that it does require close contact with a known case,” Hunter said. “We found no evidence of risk associated with casual community contact with individuals who are not yet showing symptoms. Even living in the same house is not that risky, providing you avoid direct contact.”
Many forms of contact, such as conversation, sharing a meal, sharing a bed and touching, are unlikely to result in disease transmission during incubation or early illness, Hunter explained.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), last year’s outbreak of the deadly virus claimed the lives of more than 11,000 people and infected an estimated 28,000 in three West African nations: Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
The new findings show that quick “diagnosis and hospitalization really is the key to stopping the spread of this disease at least until a vaccine is widely available,” he said.
“Our work also shows that vaccination strategies in future outbreaks only need to be targeted at relatively close contacts of cases and health care workers,” Hunter added.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about Ebola.