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You Won't Catch Ebola From A Giraffe In Tanzania

Maria Fabrizio for NPR
An illustration of animals native to Africa.
Maria Fabrizio for NPR

Korean Air has stopped all flights to Kenya. International travelers are canceling safaris. And parents of some students traveling to South Africa are nervous.

Why? Ebola.

The virus has dominated headlines for several months — and for good reason. The current outbreak is the worst in history, with more than 3,700 reported cases and 1,800 deaths as of Aug. 31.

The virus has also wreaked havoc on Africa's tourism industry.

"A lot of safari sites are running at 50 or 60 percent capacity right now, in the high season," said Paul Campbell of Travel Butlers, a U.K.-based company specializing in safaris. "Normally, these places are filled up years in advance."

"We've had people saying they are not going to travel to Botswana or Tanzania because they're concerned about Ebola," Campbell said.

Sandy Kuhl, who lives in Philadelphia, has concerns. Her daughter, a junior at Case Western Reserve University, will be doing medical anthropology research in Cape Town, South Africa, beginning in January. Kuhl contacted Goats and Soda to ask about the likelihood of the Ebola virus spreading to southern Africa.

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How big is Africa? This illustration shows how many countries and regions could fit inside "the cradle of humankind." Kai Krause hide caption

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Kai Krause

How big is Africa? This illustration shows how many countries and regions could fit inside "the cradle of humankind."

Kai Krause

"It seems like nobody can predict how Ebola will spread," she said. "I know that it only takes one infected person to bring the virus to a new country."

So how worried should travelers to Africa be?

It's not a simple question to answer, particularly because of the current outbreak's unprecedented scope. But there are some reasons to breathe easy.

One is Africa's geography. As this map shows, the continent is enormous —roughly the size of the U.S., China, India, Spain, Germany, Italy, France, the U.K. and Eastern Europe combined. It's huge.

The Ebola outbreak is centered in four countries in a relatively small part of West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. There has also been one reported case in Senegal and a small, unrelated outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The distance from the heart of the outbreak to Nairobi, Kenya — where Korean Air canceled all flights on Aug. 14, citing fears over Ebola — is roughly 3,300 miles. That's about the distance from Orlando, Fla., to Juneau, Alaska. So, geographically speaking, canceling a trip to Kenya is like canceling a trip to Disney World because of an Ebola outbreak in Alaska.

In fact, Africa is so large that many cities in Europe are actually closer to the Ebola outbreak than are cities in eastern and southern Africa. Johannesburg is more than 3,400 miles away — farther than both Paris and London.

And consider this study, which analyzed where people infected with Ebola would be most likely to travel, based on airline traffic from West Africa. It found that the United States and the United Kingdom — along with four other European nations — are more likely to see an Ebola case than most countries in Africa.

In Africa itself, "we're most concerned about the countries that share a border with the affected countries," David Nabarro, head of the World Health Organization's Ebola efforts, told Goats and Soda.

Margaret Chan, director-general of WHO, told us that Americans have a heightened sense of concern. "The level of fear in the U.S. is up here," she said, raising her hand above her head. "It should be down here," she added, moving her hand below her chest.

After I explained all of this to Sandy Kuhl, she seemed more relaxed about her daughter traveling to South Africa. I pointed out that, if you believe the study about airline travel, her daughter could actually be safer from Ebola in South Africa than in the U.S.

"In a strange way, that's comforting," she said.