Ebola in the United States

"Anti Virus" by hyena reality at freedigitalphotos.net
“Anti Virus” by hyena reality at freedigitalphotos.net

With the arrival of Ebola in Texas, the media coverage of Ebola has increased dramatically. Reuters has a good video talking about the current situation with Ebola (click here). As the video discusses, people are starting to ask questions about mass transit and other technologies that bring people into contact. Could you transmit Ebola through the key pads for debit cards? Elevator buttons and handrails in public buildings. Cash? Is the United States so different that it could not have a significant Ebola outbreak? On the one hand, Ebola has been controlled in Nigeria through an effective health response. On the other hand, there are many things about Ebola that researchers are still learning, such as the implications of recent Canadian scholarship suggesting that Ebola can be spread by an airborne route in the lab. Ian MacKay (a key source for information on the outbreak) has a good blog post on the different meanings that “air-borne transmission” may have for a medical researcher as opposed to the lay person. The bottom line is that it may be possible in the lab, but is unlikely to be a major transmission route in the real world. But people have many questions, and there needs to be clearer information available.

The good news is that the pace of the disease seems to be slowing somewhat from its earlier exponential growth in West Africa. But the scale of the challenge is still overwhelming. Over 7,400 people have been infected in West Africa and nearly half that number have died. According to the CDC, it is even possible that 1.4 million people could be infected by January, 2015 in a worst case scenario. With the arrival of the disease in the United States, the question of whether air travel should be stopped to West Africa has become a political question. In Texas, Governor Rick Perry is calling for enhanced quarantines with air travel and for the screening of travelers. Sadly, the U.S. health care system appeared to be less prepared than hoped for Ebola’s arrival, particularly in the area of public communication. For another post on Ebola, click here.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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