Choose words carefully when writing about Ebola

Kris Hickman

About Kris Hickman

Kris Hickman (@the_index_case) is a graduate research assistant for AHCJ, pursuing a master’s degree in public health. She has a bachelor's degree in anthropology, with a minor in journalism, from the University of Missouri. She spent two years in Zambia as an HIV/AIDS community education volunteer in the Peace Corps. She aspires to be an epidemiologist and science writer.

Phot by NIAID via Flickr

Image by NIAID via Flickr

Word choice matters, especially when it comes to covering a deadly disease.

You may have heard the terms “infectious” and “contagious” being used interchangeably in Ebola stories. Even health professionals sometimes use them that way, and that is adequate in many instances. However, minor differences between the two terms may play a role in which one you decide to use in a story.

According to the CDC, contagious means the bacteria or virus can be transmitted from person to person (a communicable disease), and is quantified by R-nought – a mathematical construct that predicts the number of people a contagious individual will infect.

Infectious refers to how many bacteria, virions, or other pathogen particles are needed to infect an exposed individual. Ebola is not terribly contagious, but it is dangerously infectious. Malaria is similar. It is impossible to catch malaria from another person, but only one bite from an infected mosquito can cause a fatal case of malaria.

It is also good to differentiate between “quarantine” and “isolation” in your stories. They both refer to separation, but are for different purposes. People who are already infected with Ebola will be isolated, while quarantine is for those who have been exposed and may become sick.

Also, remember that since Ebola is transmitted by bodily fluids, it is thought to be non-contagious until symptoms appear. While this has been contested, and some scientists are worried about the possibility of airborne transmission, most evidence still tells us that exposure to contaminated bodily fluids is the main mode of infection.

More resources to help cover Ebola:

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