The death toll for the Ebola virus recently stood at 101 in Guinea, where the first of the current outbreaks began. The disease has now also been reported in Liberia, Sierra Leone and across West Africa to Mali. The organization Doctors without Borders is trying to contain the disease, but admits the possibility it could spread further. Given the frequency of modern air travel, is it possible that an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. is just a plane ride away?
The World Health Organization (WHO) is trying to contain the spread of the deadly disease. They are responding to the outbreak in Guinea by setting up an operation center to coordinate activities involved in detecting victims, transporting them to treatment centers and quickly burying patients who don’t survive treatment. The Ebola virus has a 90 percent fatality rate. There is no vaccine for use against the virus, nor is their any specific treatment. Doctors agree that catching the disease early and treating its symptoms is the “best medicine.”
Ebola symptoms can include joint and muscle aches, diarrhea, stomach pain and vomiting, headaches and loss of appetite. As the disease advances, symptoms can include bleeding both inside and outside the body.
Victims don’t typically show symptoms immediately upon contracting the Ebola virus. The incubation period can take two to 21 days before any signs appear. The span of time people can carry the virus and not be aware of it, is what alarms health officials to a dire possibility: with the growing rate of air travel in today’s world, an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. and other countries could be just a plane ride away.
To help avoid the spreading of the disease through air travel, authorities have set up screening facilities at the Gbessia International Airport in Conakry, the nation’s capital city. The screening is being done by French medical teams, since Guinea was a colony of France as recently as 1958. A total of 16 Ebola cases have already been reported in Conakry, a poverty-plagued city of two million people.
The Ebola virus has been detected within U.S. borders in past years, but fortunately the strain had no real symptomatic effects on humans. The virus was brought by a group of macaque monkeys imported from the Philippines for pharmaceutical testing in 1989. Imported monkeys are required to spend 30 days in quarantine, and the macaques were kept in a quarantine facility in Reston, Virginia, a Washington, D.C. suburb. Within a few days, a number of the simians showed symptoms of the virus and began to die. Researchers found traces of blood in monkey intestines and dead cells that, when viewed under a microscope, showed tell-tale signs of the Ebola virus. Samples sent to the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases showed a new strain of the Ebola, which they named Ebola Reston. Testing showed that six humans who had been in contact with the monkeys had contracted the virus. Fortunately, none developed Ebola-type symptoms and it was thought that humans are immune to that particular strain of the virus.
This time, though, the results could be more damaging. Authorities hold their breath and put measures in place to confine the deadly outbreaks to the countries where they now exist; and treat the unfortunate victims who live there. But with modern air travel, a wider spread of the disease is possible, and an Ebola outbreak in the U.S. remains just a plane ride away.
Commentary by B. David Warner