What the U.S. Is Doing About West Africa’s Ebola Outbreak

Health officials are advising stateside doctors to watch for symptoms of the virus in patients, while one congressman is calling for a complete travel ban for affected nations.

A man holds a newspaper featuring a front page story on the death of Liberian diplomat and U.S. citizen Patrick Sawyer, pictured with his wife Decontee, who died of the Ebloa virus in Lagos on July 30.
National Journal
Marina Koren
July 30, 2014, 10:02 a.m.

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.

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