The revelation that doctors in Dallas yesterday diagnosed the first case of Ebola on U.S. soil sent a shudder of fear through the American public. But how grave is the danger?
Historically, Ebola outbreaks have been fairly well contained, but the latest outbreak, which began back on March 22 and has killed more than 3,000 people, was by June already the worst since the virus was discovered in 1976.
As this Reuters map shows, the U.S. is one of a number of countries with direct flights from the infected area, which in theory provides ample opportunity for the virus to spread far beyond West Africa.
Fortunately, unlike airborne diseases, Ebola can only be spread through contact with bodily fluids—although this means all fluids, including seemingly innocuous liquids like sweat and tears. The method of transmission should limit the virus’s ability to spread quickly without detection.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC that a seven-person CDC team is working with the infected man’s family to get a full picture of those who might have been exposed in the time between when the man arrived in Dallas on Sept. 20 and when he was isolated eight days later.
Symptoms of Ebola can take between two and 21 days to emerge, so the next couple of weeks will be key. As things stand, if the CDC’s identification and containment efforts in Dallas are successful, we should be in good shape.
Officials are optimistic. “It is certainly possible someone who had contact with this individual could develop Ebola in the coming weeks,” Frieden told a press conference. “I have no doubt we will stop this in its tracks in the United States.” Given that doctors already missed their first opportunity to isolate the infected patient by sending him home with antibiotics, let’s hope that Frieden’s confidence isn’t misplaced.