Last week, for the first time in recorded history, the Ebola virus traveled from one country to another by plane. The man who carried it died five days after touching down in Nigeria, before he could make the last leg of his trip, to Minneapolis.
The death of Patrick Sawyer, a naturalized U.S. citizen who worked for the finance ministry of Liberia, where he was born, has sparked fears in the U.S. that the Ebola outbreak in West Africa could spread to the United States. "People weren't really taking it [Ebola] seriously until it hit Patrick," his wife, Decontee Sawyer, told CNN on Wednesday. Her husband was traveling from Liberia to the States to celebrate his young daughters' birthdays in August. "People are ready to take action."
In the U.S., which has never had its own case of Ebola, one member of Congress wants to restrict travel from affected West African nations. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla, wrote a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson on Tuesday requesting a travel ban on the citizens of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, "and any foreign person who has visited one of these nations 90 days prior to arriving in the United States." The congressman said Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, where Patrick Sawyer collapsed from his symptoms, in particular poses a danger because it offers direct flights to the U.S.
"I urge you to consider the enhanced danger Ebola now presents to the American public," Grayson wrote. A spokeswoman for Grayson said Wednesday that his office has not yet received a response.
The Ebola virus, which has no approved treatment or vaccine, has infected more than 1,100 people and killed more than 670 in Africa since February, according to the World Health Organization.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki declined to say during a Monday press briefing whether her agency is considering imposing travel warnings or restrictions for West African countries. "In terms of what we're considering, I don't have anything to predict," she said. "We're taking every precaution, of course."
In Africa, affected nations are using travel restrictions as their first line of defense. Asky, a major West African airline, has suspended all flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone to keep "its passengers and staff safe during this unsettling time," the BBC reported Tuesday. All travelers arriving from Guinea on Asky flights are screened for signs of infection. Arik Air, Nigeria's largest airline, has also banned flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone. Liberia closed most of its border crossings and banned public gatherings on Monday, and police officers are screening passengers for symptoms in the capital's Roberts International Airport.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is little risk that the virus could reach the U.S. by air travel. The agency has advised stateside health care providers to watch patients who have traveled to West Africa recently for symptoms of the virus. It also issued a "level 2" travel alert, warning U.S. visitors to Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone to avoid contact with infected individuals. The next step in precaution, a "level 3" warning, would prompt the State Department to advise against nonessential travel to these nations.
U.S. embassies in the affected nations are recommending that U.S. citizens traveling there enroll in a State Department program that provides security updates and makes it easier for embassy or consulate officials to contact travelers in case of emergencies.
The Ebola virus is one of the most dangerous agents known to humans. It attacks the immune system, causing fever, flu-like aches, vomiting, diarrhea and, in severe cases, internal and external bleeding. Caught early, the mortality rate is 60 percent; found too late, it's a near-hopeless 90 percent. Because there's not much doctors can do for patients other than alleviate some of the symptoms, the key to stopping an Ebola outbreak is containing it until it dies out. Now that the virus has hitched a ride aboard a plane full of healthy, potential hosts, the importance of containment is greater than ever before.