Ebola: Don’t be scared. Be careful.
Federal officials announced Tuesday that a passenger who flew from Liberia to Dallas last month had become the first person to be diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S. On Wednesday came word that health officials are monitoring several more people for signs of illness, including five school children who had contact with the first Ebola patient.
Yes, that is frightening. Ebola is deadly. There is no cure or vaccine. The Dallas case — or cases — probably won’t be the last. This lethal virus has swept through West Africa and an ocean’s expanse is no shield in the age of jetliners.
Scary as it is, however, this unfolding story also should reassure Americans how swiftly and effectively U.S. public health workers can move to contain a deadly virus: Workers are tracking those who came in contact with the patient, who was diagnosed with Ebola several days after he arrived in Texas to visit family members. The patient showed no signs of the disease — fever, nausea and vomiting — before he boarded the plane or while he was en route. There’s “zero chance” that he infected other passengers, says Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because he showed no signs of infection on the flight. Unlike other viruses, Ebola spreads mainly via bodily fluids, not through the air.
America’s public health system has had plenty of time to prepare for this threat. Medical and hospital workers have drilled for wide-scale medical disasters since 9/11. They’re adept at identifying and isolating victims, tracking others who may have been exposed and educating everyone about common-sense measures they can take to stay healthy.
That’s why it is difficult for an epidemic to take hold in this country. Every few years brings another scare: In 2009, it was the H1N1 flu. Before that, the viral respiratory disease known as SARS. Each threat provokes an overwhelming medical immune response — legions of doctors, nurses, researchers and outreach workers target the intruder. Treatments are refined. Drugs are marshaled. Vaccines, if available, are rushed to clinics.
So how can Americans reduce their risk of exposure? You’ve heard this advice before. From your mom. A thousand times. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. (The average adult touches his nose, mouth or eyes about 16 times an hour, researchers say.)
University of Arizona researchers showed how quickly a virus can race through the office: A door contaminated with a virus spreads the germ to about half of the employees in an office in four hours, The Wall Street Journal reports. “The hand is quicker than the sneeze,” a microbiology professor told the paper.
Ebola doesn’t infect people through the air, but it remains a swift foe. The virus has burned through West Africa, killing thousands. Left unchecked it could infect more than 1 million people in that region by January, CDC officials recently predicted. But that is the worst-case scenario. It needn’t be prophetic.
Four American doctors and aid workers airlifted out of Africa to receive treatment in the U.S. have survived. That’s an excellent batting average against a virus that is lethal in Africa about half the time. The Dallas patient’s condition has been upgraded to serious but stable from critical.
The CDC also reports that quick, effective action by doctors and other health workers in Nigeria has apparently brought an outbreak under control, with no new cases reported in more than 21 days.
At the same time, global efforts to battle the virus have picked up steam. President Barack Obama has wisely pledged more American aid to help build hospitals in West Africa. Other donors around the world need to step up, too. Ebola in Dallas can quickly be followed by Ebola in Moscow, Riyadh, Paris, Beijing, Rome or Sao Paulo.
The Ebola epidemic will end. All of us can help determine when.