Containing Ebola presents global health challenge

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa – the largest and deadliest in history – shows no sign of waning. It’s killed at least 887 since February, and health officials are concerned that it could spread more widely through travel.

Those fears were heightened with the recent Ebola death in Lagos, Nigeria, of an airplane passenger who had flown in from Liberia with a stop in Togo. Now Nigeria reports that at least one of that man’s caregivers – a doctor – has been infected.

With an incubation period of up to three weeks, the deadly Ebola virus is only a plane trip away from America. It could be here before an infected passenger even realized he was coming down with something.

That’s scary. So is the fact that in past outbreaks, Ebola has typically killed about 90 percent of those infected – reflecting the fact that there’s no effective treatment for it. The death rate in this outbreak is lower, about 60 percent, because of faster response to treating victims’ symptoms.

Health care workers are at particular risk. About 100 of these heroic caregivers have been infected in Africa, and about half of them have died, including some prominent doctors.

Given the ease of international travel, could it spread here as it already has in Guinea, Sierre Leone, Liberia and now Nigeria?

Theoretically that could happen, but the Centers for Disease Control is assuring Americans that it probably won’t. We’ll cling to that “probably.”

For one thing, Ebola transmission requires close contact with a symptomatic person’s bodily fluids: primarily blood and feces. Most people are infected by caring for someone already showing symptoms or by having contact with a victim’s body. There have been no substantiated cases of an infected airline passenger passing the virus on to others on a plane.

Compared to facilities treating African victims, U.S. health providers are better able to isolate sick people and tend to them without being infected. That’s why it makes sense to bring back two American caregivers who have been infected with the virus. It’s unlikely that they will transmit the disease to those caring for them here. Even if that happens, the disease  is unlikely to get a foothold here like it has in places with rudimentary facilities. 

Unlikely. Not impossible. The best recourse to preventing the spread of Ebola is to get it under control where it is now. Health care workers are spread thin, working long days without enough isolation equipment and supplies. If First World Nations hope to avoid their own Ebola outbreaks, they need to be stepping up to fund greater response in West Africa.