Now they tell us: Difference between ‘airborne’ and ‘droplet’ spread of disease

Now they tell us: Difference between ‘airborne’ and ‘droplet’ spread of disease

Howard has covered the administration’s latest stumblebum approach to messaging on how Ebola is spread here. Let me add my own two droplets, er, cents.

Surely someone in the vast public health bureaucracy could have tapped the doctors and scientists and president on the shoulder at some point in the Ebola crisis and said, “Uh, you know, it might be a good idea to explain to the public the difference between ‘airborne’ diseases and those spread by ‘droplets.’ Otherwise, every time you claim Ebola is not an airborne disease, they’re going to think you can’t get it by having an infected person, say, sneeze on you on a bus or something.”

I’m sure the reason this never happened was because we didn’t pay the communications staff enough, right? Budget cuts and all that. Sequestration.

Anyway, early on in this long, national nightmare, I found myself wondering: What, exactly, do these experts mean by “airborne?” You see, hubs and I had recently watched a very informative Nova (thank you, Koch brothers) show about vaccinations. And in this Nova (thank you, Koch brothers) episode, there was a very good section about how infectious measles is because it is….wait for it…airborne. They demonstrated with terrific, clear graphics (thank you, Koch brothers) that an infected person could get on an empty elevator, leave it, then hours later someone else could get in that elevator and contract measles just by breathing the air in the car.

So, to review, it seemed to me that “airborne” had a very specific meaning to health professionals that wasn’t being communicated by the CDC and other officials who kept trying to quell anxiety with their calming messages: “You silly dunderheads, Ebola isn’t an airborne disease (but, for God’s sake, don’t go on buses if you’re infected!!!!)”

Airborne meant the diseases could linger in the air and surroundings after the infected person left the space. Droplet spread means what it implies — the infected person has to be near enough to an uninfected person for his/her droplets (from sneezing, coughing, etc) to reach the uninfected person. At least, that’s my understanding after viewing a very helpful poster on this topic produced by…the CDC. Here it is:



But when the New York Post ran an article titled “CDC admits droplets from a sneeze could spread Ebola,” the CDC pulled the poster above with a message saying it was being “updated.” Well, that certainly instilled confidence. As did a HuffPo article reporting on the sudden removal of the poster and other material from the CDC website on this topic.

As noted in the Huffington Post update in the article linked to above, the CDC has a new and improved poster now that showcases the difference between airborne and droplet-spread diseases. I don’t have a picture of it, but if go to this link, you should be able to see the PDF (I’d advise you to hurry, in case they change their mind about it). It’s a pretty clear explanation of the difference between the two methods of disease spread.

If only our public health agencies had been funded adequately, this confusion and consternation surely would have been cleared up earlier, right?


Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg

Libby Sternberg is an Edgar-nominated novelist whose works include humorous women’s fiction, young adult fiction, and historical fiction. Her political writings have appeared at Hot Air, the Weekly Standard, Insight, the Wall Street Journal, and Christian Science Monitor.


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