The headline in the online version of USA Today on Monday was chilling: “ Ebola only a plane flight away from the USA.”
Ebola, which conjures up images of personnel in “moonsuits,” is among the deadliest viral illnesses on the planet. There is no vaccine, little treatment and the death toll approaches 90 percent, though early treatment can save some lives. If there is a silver lining, it’s that because of the remoteness of the area in which Ebola generally surfaces, outbreaks have been contained.
The present outbreak is different — possibly hugely different. It has infected more than 1,200 people in West Africa and killed more than 670 of them. Centered in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, it shows no sign of abating. Doctors Without Borders, which is providing heroic care in the stricken region, has said this outbreak is “out of control.”
According to the World Health Organization, Ebola’s symptoms include fever, chills, sore throat, achy muscles, vomiting, diarrhea and a rash. In advanced cases, heavy bleeding, internally and from the mouth and nose, can occur, and the disease can cause vital organs to fail. No wonder it generates terror.
Fortunately, it doesn’t spread as easily as colds, generally requiring direct human-to-human contact with bodily fluids or the tissue of infected people.
The outbreak in East Africa doesn’t mean Ebola will reach the United States, which has not seen Ebola, but it’s possible. It reached Lagos, Nigeria, when an infected individual took a plane flight there. He has since died and it is not yet known whether he transmitted the illness to anyone. Lagos, with 21 million people, would be a terrible incubator; among the fears is that another infected person will get on a plane and carry the disease to other cities or continents.
America’s public health system is on the alert, and personnel at international airports have been instructed to be aware of individuals who have suspicious symptoms. Working against the spread of Ebola in the United States are customs regarding the handling of the dead and better sanitation. While such defenses are good, they are not absolute.
Unfortunately, people in West Africa remain much more vulnerable to the worst Ebola outbreak on record. Even with support from the United States, European Union and others, medical teams in West Africa are overwhelmed. More help is needed to prevent this Ebola outbreak from claiming countless more victims in Africa and perhaps other parts of the world as well.
It’s “only a plane flight away.”