Can You Contract Ebola at a Show? We Asked a Smart Person

Are you gonna die because you shared that beer with someone? We get to the bottom of this.

by Dan Ozzi
Oct 24 2014, 3:00pm

This week, as the epidemic known as CMJ plagued upon New York City, infecting the city with hordes of buzz bands and concert-going tourists, a more detrimental epidemic also made its big city debut: Ebola. The rare and deadly virus was linked to The Gutter, a venue and bowling alley in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Gutter canceled its CMJ activities and closed its doors this week after it was discovered that a doctor who had recently been treating patients in West Africa tested positive for Ebola had recently visited the venue. This prompted New Yorkers to receive numerous panicked phone calls from their mothers in Idaho. It also brought on a slew of inevitable hacky Twitter jokes. Ha ha “Ebowla.” Good stuff. Because it’s a bowling alley. Hey maybe hipsters get Ebola from sharing fedoras! LOL classic. Thanks for seeing the humor in illness, Twitter. You are a modern-day Patch Adams.

But beneath all the jokes, whether or not the cool kids of Williamsburg were willing to admit it, there was an underlying sense of fear and dread. We’ve all done our share of regrettable acivities at shows and bars—shared that beer with that weird hippie at Union Pool, brought home the last person left at the Levee, did that thing WE WILL NOT SPEAK OF in the bathroom of Enid’s. Does that mean we're all gonna die? Should we all start panicking and burn our belongings and run naked down Bedford Avenue, looting and rioting before we meet our inevitable demise? To find out, we called a smart person, Dr. Philip Alcabes, who is the Professor Public Health at Adelphi University and author of the book Dread: How Fear and Fantasy Have Fueled Epidemics from the Black Death to Avian Flu to help us answer the pressing question: “OMFG do I have Ebola???”

Noisey: There are a lot of tourists in town for CMJ—1,300 bands come to New York to play across 80 venues. Does that increase the chance of Ebola spreading throughout the country?
Dr. Alcabes: Well it would if there were infectious Ebola around. But there’s no reason to think that’s the case.

This person who did have Ebola at The Gutter, how could he transfer that to somebody else at a show?
He probably couldn’t. It looks like they now say he tested positive for Ebola, but it seems like, at least from the details that are available so far, he had a slight fever and went to the hospital. So he probably didn’t have a fever when he was at the show, or even if he did, it wasn’t very high. And what we’ve learned so far based on this West African outbreak, and the few exposures in Dallas, is that Ebola is not very infectious. It looks like it’s not infectious at all in the incubation period—from the time you get infected until the time you have symptoms. I can’t say that for sure, there’s no way to know for sure, and this is based on somewhat limited evidence, but it really looks like it’s hard to transmit Ebola until later in the course of the illness. Not at the point when all you have is a low fever.

Say someone did have Ebola in an advanced stage and they went to a show. If one thing led to another and you took that person home, would you be able to contract it from them?
You know, this is kind of a science fiction theory. If someone has advanced Ebola, they’re really sick—like vomiting and bloody diarrhea and high fever. A show is not the first thing on their agenda.

I don’t know, people bring home strange folks in Williamsburg.
I understand your point that for some people of certain erotic proclivities, it might not be a disincentive to bring them home. But the hypothetical person with Ebola probably isn’t feeling like going to a show, let alone going home with somebody.

If a band who was infected shared a microphone with another band, is that a way to spread it?
There’s an article in today’s New York Times by Carl Zimmer that you might want to look at. He’s a really good science writer, and he’s sort of disentangled this question about droplets of liquid, or body fluids. It really looks like you have to have direct contact. With influenza as a counter example, the virus gets into invisible aerosol or invisible droplets of fluid that just float around in the air. Which is why you can get the flu just being in the same room as somebody, not even standing close to that person let alone kissing or sharing a microphone—because these aerosols are so infectious. It really looks like with Ebola, that’s not true. Possibly never true, and all that happens is the virus is in the actual liquid. So it could be mucus or saliva or blood, but if you don’t have contact with the visible droplets of fluid, you’re not going to get infected. So the scenario you proposed, no. It’s not total fantasy, but it would have to be the microphone is used right afterwards, the person gets very close to the microphone and was basically inhaling the leftover saliva droplets from the microphone.

Would you say that it’s more likely to go to a show in Brooklyn and contract an STD afterwards than Ebola?
I guess statistically, obviously again, based on what sort of person you go home with, but statistically, yes. By a lot. That’s a question people around this area will legitimately ask because it’s that kind of culture.

Not imputing any particular dire status to Brooklynites—just the natural levels of usual prevalence of STDs that circulate in any population of young people. Any given typical levels of sexual activity on any given night in a population of young people, you’d have to say there’s a non-zero probability of STDs that would be a lot higher than transmission than Ebola. If you want to worry about something, worry about STDs way more.

Would condoms prevent Ebola?
It’s interesting. There’s only a couple reports about this, so really unconfirmed, but there was at least one study of semen of men who had recovered from Ebola, and those researchers claimed there was infectious Ebola in the semen even after the man had recovered from the disease. Now, it’s only one study, it was laboratory investigation into semen, so no one who actually had sex with any of those guys actually got Ebola. So you have to be careful about interpreting this. In a laboratory, you can find a virus after people recover, but it doesn’t mean it’s actually transmissible.

Probably safe to say not to fuck anyone that’s had Ebola then.
That’s the great thing about condoms, if you use them, it eliminates a lot of questions that may occur to you the next day.

Did The Gutter actually need to close?
I think the purpose is, and I’m not an official and I don’t know what’s going through their minds, but they want people to feel reassured that this is political. That they’re aware of every possibility, and they’re going to make sure they cover the entire waterfront and that there aren’t any transmissions of Ebola. Especially if it’s a festival, it’s a pretty dramatic thing to close one of the venues. So to me, it looks political. It’s letting people know your city officials are on top of things, and don’t worry.

Your son’s band has played at The Gutter before. If your son’s band had a show tonight at The Gutter, would you let him play?
It wouldn’t be up to me because he’s a grown-up, but would I recommend he not go? Nah. They’re closing The Gutter because the officials need to demonstrate they’re operating under an excess of caution. This is purely legitimation, it’s not that they really think if anyone walks in tonight they would get Ebola, it’s not even they think this guy was very infectious.

Dan Ozzi does not have Ebola. Follow him on Twitter - @danozzi