By Amy Norton
FRIDAY, Nov. 7, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Americans' fears about Ebola seem to be waning somewhat, though many still believe the virus is a public health threat to the United States, according to a new HealthDay/Harris Poll.
The online poll, which surveyed more than 2,000 adults between Oct. 28-30, found that anxiety over Ebola appeared to be declining -- even in the wake of the most recent case, involving an infected doctor in New York City.
Just under half (49 percent) of those surveyed now consider Ebola a "moderate" or "major" public health threat to Americans. That's down from 55 percent in a similar poll conducted in early October, soon after news broke of the first case of Ebola diagnosed in the United States. That case involved a man in Dallas, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national who died of the illness on Oct. 8 after becoming infected in his home country.
The new poll also found a rise in the number of people who say they're more worried about catching the seasonal flu than they are about contracting Ebola -- up from 40 percent in the earlier poll to 47 percent in the latest one.
Americans' Ebola-linked anxieties about travel also seem to be easing since last month, when Dallas nurse Amber Vinson -- who contracted Ebola after caring for Duncan -- took a flight from Cleveland to Dallas a day before she was diagnosed with the disease.
In the earlier poll, 57 percent of Americans with family or friends who frequently travel said they were at least somewhat concerned about their safety, but that number has now dropped to 43 percent in the new poll.
"The fear of an Ebola epidemic in this country has, it seems, begun to erode," said Harris Poll chairman Humphrey Taylor.
And that, Taylor noted, may be partly due to the fact that no one has been infected on U.S. shores other than Vinson and Nina Pham, the other infected Dallas nurse who helped care for Duncan. All of the other seven people cared for in the United States contracted Ebola while in West Africa, site of the worst Ebola outbreak in history.
The single New York City case was diagnosed in Dr. Craig Spencer, who'd recently returned from treating Ebola patients in the West African nation of Guinea. He remains in stable condition at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan.
Dr. Joseph McCormick, an infectious-disease expert, agreed that there's some good news in the poll results -- especially the decline in people's travel worries.
"There's no question there have been unfounded fears about travel," said McCormick, regional dean of the University of Texas School of Public Health in Brownsville.
That's because medical experts say Ebola can only be transmitted through contact with bodily fluids when patients are showing overt symptoms, such as fever, diarrhea or vomiting. It can't be transmitted via the air, such as happens with colds or the flu.
At the same time, though, Americans may still have a distorted view of Ebola's potential impact on the United States, McCormick said.
For example, poll respondents thought Ebola was a bigger public health threat to the United States than hepatitis C -- a potentially severe and fatal liver infection that affects millions of Americans.
"That surprised me," McCormick said.
Globally, the current Ebola outbreak has now sickened close to 13,600 people in West Africa and killed nearly 5,000, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Three West African nations -- Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone -- have borne nearly all of the burden.
In the new poll, 80 percent of Americans were aware that Ebola is at least a "moderate" threat elsewhere in the world. And more people claimed to be savvy about the infection, compared to the earlier survey: 56 percent felt at least somewhat knowledgeable about the disease, versus 45 percent in the previous poll.
More widespread information about Ebola might be another reason for the fading anxiety, Taylor said.
McCormick agreed. "That does indicate that education could be having an effect," he said.
Still, he said, poll respondents also showed indications of unfounded fears. Almost three-quarters still believe that people with Ebola could transmit the virus before they're actually showing symptoms.
"That (poll result) is worrisome," McCormick said. "It suggests there may be a basic distrust of what we're saying about transmission."
But, he added, "I'm really not sure what it'll take to persuade people that someone without symptoms cannot transmit the virus."
According to McCormick, people concerned about Ebola should seek out "credible" information -- whether from the CDC, university websites, or responsible media stories.
Even though the media has been blamed for fanning the flames of Ebola anxiety, McCormick said there are also plenty of balanced stories on the outbreak.