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Air travel and Ebola HF: Is the United States at risk?

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The most widespread Ebola hemorrhagic fever outbreak on record is underway in West Africa, and new information raises concern about air travel contributing to the rapid spread of this deadly disease. There is no cure for Ebola HF; in 50 to 90 percent of cases, it proves fatal.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, 670 people from Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have died in the ongoing Ebola HF outbreak. One man died in Nigeria after flying from Monrovia, Liberia to Lagos, Nigeria via Lome, Togo, the Associated Press reported. With Lagos the largest city in Africa, home to 21 million, an outbreak could be catastrophic.

MSN noted that air passenger screening to prevent the spread of Ebola HF is of limited value. Ebola HF has a 2 to 21 day incubation period; a sufferer becomes contagious only when symptoms appear.

Patrick Sawyer, the man who died after flying to Nigeria, showed no Ebola HF symptoms on boarding his flight but was seriously ill by the time the plane landed. Even more problematic for screening programs is the nonspecific nature of early Ebola symptoms, mimicking a variety of other, less deadly, health conditions.

Could Ebola HF spread beyond Africa to the United States? There’s already been a presumptive near-miss during this outbreak. Dr. Kent Brantly is an American doctor working with Samaritan’s Purse to help control the disease in Liberia.

Shortly before he realized he had contracted Ebola HF last week, his family flew home to Indiana. So far, Associated Press noted, they have shown no signs of having contracted the disease from their exposure to Brantly.

A different strain of Ebola did make its way to the Washington, D.C., area back in 1989 as a result of air travel. When Hazelton Labs of Reston, Va., flew in 100 crab-eating macaques from the Philippines for cosmetic testing, an unusually high number died in flight and during the mandatory quarantine period.

Testing disclosed a strain of Ebola that came to be called Ebola Reston, which spread from the quarantined shipment of monkeys to monkeys housed in separate rooms in the same facility. Despite some serious issues with the handling of the infected primates, and six workers showing signs of infection, there were no human deaths, due primarily to the nature of the Ebola Reston strain.

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