Health/Science
5:50 pm
Mon August 4, 2014

Think: Containing Ebola In The U.S.

Today on Think, Krys Boyd asked a panel of local infectious disease experts about whether Ebola could spread in the United States.

Dr. Seema Yasmin says there’s actually a simple explanation to why Africa sees outbreaks like this and the U.S. does not: outbreaks are driven by fear.

When Americans get sick, that fear drives them to a doctor. In Africa, it can drive them away.

“It’s understandable that people are scared," she said. "They’ve seen their loved ones taken away from the village - sick but alive – put into these tents – sometimes scary looking facilities. And when they exit, they’re in a body bag. And they don’t know what’s happened in the interim.”

Yasmin is a professor at UT-Dallas and a health reporter for The Dallas Morning News. She says that infectious disease experts in Africa are focused on educating people about the importance of containing the disease by isolating the sick.

But what if one of those sick people managed to make it onto a plane bound for the U.S.? Dr. Robert Haley, and infectious disease expert at UT-Southwestern, says if that person began showing symptoms while in the air, the pilot is obligated to alert medical personnel before even opening the doors.

“So if you had a person who had flown from West Africa right now, who came in with fever, then the plane would be met by one of these emergency medical personnel, who would assess the situation and handle it the appropriate way," he said.

Still, Ebola has an incubation period between two and 21 days – plenty of time for a sick person to walk off a plane feeling fine. But in the U.S., when someone experiences the flu-like symptoms associated with the early stages of Ebola, odds are they’re going to get checked out.

Dr. Cristie Columbus, an infectious disease expert with Baylor University Medical Center, says that shouldn’t be a problem – even in an E.R waiting room full of other sick people.

“Typically, if a patient presented to the emergency room in such a dire type of situation, they would be triaged immediately back most likely to a private room and would not remain in the waiting room," she said.

Once they’re seen by a doctor, Haley says a thorough patient history is the trick to isolating Ebola.

“And they key is, if somebody has a flu like illness, but they’ve been in West Africa, or they’ve been caring for somebody who has Ebola, or they’ve been testing monkeys in Congo or something, they would get that history and quickly they would put that person in isolation," he said.

While Ebola is often fatal, it’s actually easier to contain than other viruses. That’s because it’s spread through bodily fluids, rather than through the air like the flu. Still, all three experts say the precautions built into our health care system work together to ensure infectious diseases like Ebola don’t find their way here.

Think re-airs tonight at 9, or check out the podcast.