Ebola in America: No cause for panic – right?

The expected has happened: A traveler has brought the Ebola virus to the United States. But the first reaction to it hardly inspires confidence that U.S. health providers are sufficiently prepared for it.

When a sick man who recently arrived from Liberia walked into a Dallas hospital emergency room last Friday, he was sent home with antibiotics. Reports say an ER nurse was told of his West African connection, but the information wasn’t passed along – a major dropping of the ball. He was returned to the hospital on Sunday – vomiting – in an ambulance. (Let’s hope his release wasn’t linked to lack of health insurance.)

On Tuesday, Thomas Eric Duncan was confirmed as the first case of a patient diagnosed in the United States. The four American aid workers transported to this country for treatment were diagnosed in Africa.

U.S. health officials claimed they were ready for the expected first case of the disease in this country, that hospitals were told what to look for and that anyone who had recently traveled from West Africa should be screened for Ebola if they start showing symptoms.

Liberia, where Duncan is from, is one of three West African nations hard hit by the current outbreak of the deadly virus. It has killed more than 3,000 people, and authorities say it is out of control in some regions. The number of cases is doubling every three weeks, and fears are that up to 1.4 million could be infected by January if it’s not brought under control. With the death rate estimated to be about 60 percent during this outbreak, the prospects for mass deaths and social upheaval are all too real.

Given the ease and speed of modern travel, it was only a matter of time before someone infected with the deadly virus brought it to the United States from West Africa. Duncan had traveled from Liberia by air to visit family members in Texas.

It is not believed that he was infectious on the flight. However, anyone who had contact with him after he began showing symptoms four days later could be at risk. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control, says it was only a “handful” of people; let’s hope he’s right.

This case should be a cautionary tale for health care providers all over the country. The traveler could just as easily have flown into SeaTac and walked into a South Sound emergency room. Would he have been allowed to leave without being tested for Ebola? Hospitals everywhere should be having serious discussions about how they would handle such cases and ensuring that their front-line staffs have gotten the message.