Despite First Confirmed Case, Ebola Poses No Threat to United States

October 1, 2014
Davy James, Associate Editor

Officials stress that the strength of the US health care system will contain the virus.

On the heels of Tuesday’s announcement confirming the first case of the Ebola virus diagnosed in the United States, officials stress that citizens should not be concerned about an outbreak in America.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced yesterday that laboratory tests showed a person who had traveled to Dallas, Texas, from Liberia tested positive for Ebola. The patient, who did not exhibit symptoms when leaving West Africa, became sick approximately 4 days after arriving in Texas on September 20, 2014.

“Ebola can be scary, but there’s all the difference in the world between the US and parts of Africa where Ebola is spreading,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, in a press release. “The United States has a strong health care system and public health professionals who will make sure this case does not threaten our communities. While it is not impossible that there could be additional cases associated with this patient in the coming weeks, I have no doubt that we will contain this.”

Ebola-infected individuals are only contagious when they show symptoms, which occur approximately 1 week after the initial exposure to the virus. The infected patient did not show any symptoms during the flight from West Africa to the United States.

The CDC does not recommend those who traveled on the same commercial airline flights as the patient to get tested for Ebola, due to the fact the individual only reported symptoms several days after returning home.

The incubation period for the disease ranges from 2 to 21 days, with the most common symptoms including fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea, joint and muscle pain, and weakness. The potential for a global outbreak is extremely limited, however, as Ebola can only be transmitted through mucous membranes or an area of broken skin that comes into contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person or materials contaminated with those fluids.

With more than 3000 related deaths and 6500 confirmed and suspected cases, the World Health Organization has deemed the epidemic raging throughout parts of West Africa as the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times. The rampant spread of the virus in Africa has been attributed to a number of factors, including a dysfunctional health care system, unsafe burial rites for the dead, a lack of trust in authorities and Western medicine, and the delayed initial response both nationally and internationally to the epidemic.

The CDC said the US public health system has been preparing to respond to a potential Ebola outbreak in America since the African epidemic began. The United States has previously faced sporadic instances of viruses like Ebola in the past decade, with 5 imported cases of viral hemorrhagic fever diseases similar to Ebola, none of which resulted in any transmission.

“Math and history show us that decisive efforts to isolate those who are infected with Ebola and to follow up quickly with the potential contacts of the infected can help to get an outbreak under control,” said Gerardo Chowell-Puente, associate professor of mathematical epidemiology at Arizona State University, in an article for Time Magazine. “We’re lucky that we have such capacities in the United States; even with the Ebola case in Dallas, the epidemic should not get much of a foothold here.”