Two Ebola patients heading to US: why officials say Americans shouldn’t fear

One American health-care worker who was diagnosed with the disease in Africa is being transported to a special isolation facility in Atlanta. The US destination for the other Ebola patient has not been confirmed.

Courtesy Jeremy Writebol/AP
American missionary Nancy Writebol, one of two Americans in Liberia who have been diagnosed with Ebola, poses with children in 2013. Plans are underway to bring both Americans to the United States for treatment.

Dallas McCade, a DJ on Atlanta’s Kicks 101.5 country station, had a quiver in her voice when she relayed the news during the Friday morning drive time: A victim of the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa is being brought to Atlanta for treatment, marking the first time that somebody diagnosed with the disease will be treated inside the United States.

Ms. McCade’s anxious reaction to an Ebola patient being brought to America’s ninth largest metro area was both understandable and commonplace. And it’s forcing the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to explain in detail its assessment that the risks to the broader American populace are low to nonexistent.

The Ebola outbreak is blamed for more than 700 deaths, mostly in Liberia and Sierra Leone. The latter country’s top infectious disease doctor perished from an Ebola infection this week, Sierra Leone’s chief medical officer said. And two American health-care workers in Africa have been diagnosed with the disease – with both, in fact, returning to the US for treatment.

At least one of them is being transported to a special isolation facility at Atlanta’s Emory University Hospital in the next day or so. The US facility receiving the other American medical professional has not been confirmed.

Still, most infectious disease experts believe that Americans have little to fear from the disease, saying that Ebola can’t spread through the air and that US safeguards are much stronger than those in West African nations with weak national health-care systems.

Even if another person on US soil were to be diagnosed with the disease, that isn’t cause for panic, the experts say.

“There is certainly a possibility that someone might get on a plane who is infected in Sierra Leone or Liberia and come to the United States,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, Md., told The Washington Post on Thursday. “But the chance of it being spread here the way you are seeing there is extraordinarily low, to the point that the CDC and me and other officials feel confident that there’s not going to be an outbreak here.”

In the affected countries, airport screenings are being conducted to identify potential Ebola victims – a key deterrent, the CDC notes.

The CDC is in the middle of international efforts to contain the outbreak. As the World Health Organization pledged $100 million toward massive containment operations, the CDC announced it will send 50 experts to West Africa in the coming weeks.

The CDC has also advised US hospital workers to be on the lookout for the disease and to initiate immediate quarantine procedures if a victim is located.

Only a few facilities in the world, including the one at Emory, are designed to deal with the virus, which the US Department of Defense classifies as “weaponizable.”

The labs in these facilities have “airlocks, isolated water supplies and ... positive-pressure protective suits [for staff],” writes Dr. Alexander van Tulleken, a senior fellow at Fordham University, in a column for the London Telegraph.

CDC director Tom Frieden, appearing on CNN Friday, argued for the importance of getting treatment to the two US medical professionals who were trying to help others.

“People do have misconceptions that [this could] spill out or erupt, but I hope that our irrational fears don’t trump our compassion for somebody who is fighting for his life,” Dr. Frieden said.

Although US health experts believe this will be the first time Ebola patients have been treated in the US, they also note that, in the past decade, five people diagnosed as having similar viruses entered the US without outbreaks occurring.

Local medical professionals in Atlanta say that while concerns are normal for such an unusual event, there’s very little risk to the general population from the virus.

Given the news that has been coming from West Africa, “the fear is sky-high,” acknowledges Dr. Sujatha Reddy, an Emory University professor who is affiliated with the hospital, in a USA Today video segment. “But in reality, it’s not that contagious.... Casual contact is not going to pass it on.”

More specifically for Atlantans, she says, “No one should be worried about going to Emory” for office visits or surgery or to visit a patient. “You’re going to be safe.”

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