EbolaEbola poses no risk in U.S.: Experts

Published 21 August 2014

Ebola has infected nearly 2,000 people in West Africa because the disease is spreading in populated areas with poor public health infrastructure, and where health workers might not be taking proper infection control procedures, such as wearing gloves, experts say. These experts note that Ebola can be contracted only from patients who have the symptoms, not those who are infected, and even then infection occurs only when coming into contact with bodily fluids. They say that SARS and the flu are more contagious than Ebola.

Dr. Diane Weems, the acting director of the East Central Health District, at last week’s meeting with the Richmond County Board of Health, acknowledged that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has been of serious concern to American health workers, but she explained that it takes more than casual contact to cause an infection, adding that Richmond County has faced far bigger public health threats in the past and will likely deal with worse in the future.

Ebola has infected nearly 2,000 people in West Africa because the disease is spreading in populated areas with poor public health infrastructure, and where health workers might not be taking proper infection control procedures, such as wearing gloves. “We know it is not passed through the air, like a cold or like the flu,” Weems said. “It’s by infected body fluids. Health care workers who are not using good infection control, not wearing gloves, are disproportionately being impacted there, in those communities.”

Health workers in the United States are not at risk. “Here, we know how to protect ourselves,” Weems said. Hospitals with travelers from West Africa are being advised to take precaution if patients show up with a fever. The Augusta Chronicle reports that in Georgia, the points of entry, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Inter­na­tional Airport, and the ports in Savannah and Brunswick have screening stations to check travelers and crewmen coming from West Africa, said Weems, who is also Coastal Health District director in Savannah.

Dr. Keith Woeltje, a professor of infectious diseases at Washington University in St. Louis and the former hospital epidemiologist at Georgia Regents Medical Center, distinguishes the risk of contracting Ebola from those who are infected and those who show symptoms. “SARS is actually way more contagious than Ebola,” he said. “The people who have gotten Ebola really have had direct contact with blood and body fluids. So casual contact is really unlikely to spread Ebola.”

Patients with Ebola are not contagious until they start showing symptoms. The flu is more contagious and cause more damage than Ebola, Woeltje said. “In terms of deaths, every year the flu season causes way more deaths worldwide than Ebola does,” he said. “And we have a vaccine for it, which granted is not perfect. But it’s still effective and we can’t get people to take the vaccine.”

Ebola poses little risk to U.S. public health. “(Mosqui­to control) would tell you we have more to worry about with chikungunya,” a mosquito-borne virus that causes joint pain and can persist for years, Weems said. “There is a concern that chikungunya will start to spread in the U.S. like West Nile (virus) did,” Woeltje said, warning that the current attention on Ebola have struck fear in the American public. “People are not good assessors of risk, really,” he said.

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