Scientists and public health officials alike have argued over the routes of transmission of Ebola virus for a while, especially since the start of the recent outbreak in West Africa. While officially Ebola is considered to be spread only via bodily fluids, there remains some debate. Many are convinced that it can in fact be spread through respiratory droplets as well.
While this possibility is a scary one, it’s one that is “very likely”, according to a team of researchers led by Michael Osterholm, an epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota. Blood, feces, and vomit are undeniably the primary routes of virus transmission; however, Dr. Osterholm maintains that tiny droplets of virus containing fluid hang in the air and are occasionally breathed in by others. This, he argues, provides an unrecognized method of transmission of the Ebola virus. Evidence the team uses to draw this conclusion includes Ebola virus found on the outside of face masks worn by health workers caring for Ebola victims. In addition, as described in Richard Preston’s The Hot Zone, Ebola virus has been passed between monkeys through a respiratory route.
While this evidence in no way proves that the Ebola virus strain responsible for this massive outbreak can pass between humans by a respiratory route, it should serve to keep the door of the public and more importantly of the scientific community open to this possibility. Hopefully more rigorous research will continue to be done over the course of this outbreak, so we can better understand the nature of this disease and more effectively manage it in the future.