The Director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Dr. Tom Frieden, appeared on four Sunday programs to quell fears that the United States may be at risk for an Ebola outbreak.
“We know that there are travelers from places where there’s Ebola. We know it’s possible that someone will come in. If they go to a hospital and that hospital doesn’t recognize it’s Ebola there could be additional cases or their family members could have cases. That’s all possible, but I don’t think it’s in the cards that we would have an outbreak in this country,” Frieden said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“The way it spreads in Africa is really two things. First, in hospitals where there isn’t really infection control and second in burial practices where people are touching the bodies of people who have died from Ebola. So it’s not going to spread widely in the U.S. Could we have another people here, could we have a case or two, not impossible … but we know how to stop it here.”
Two American aid workers, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, have contracted the disease.
Concern in the United States escalated after it was announced that both patients would be brought back to America. Brantly arrived in Atlanta, Ga., on Saturday and Writebol is expected to follow shortly.
Medical experts echoed Frieden’s position and downplayed the threat of an outbreak in the United States.
“This disease is spread by direct contact or body fluid contact, and inside these containment areas there’s negative pressure so any air going, would go into rather than come out of that facility. The workers are protected by complete covering of their face and all of their body, and they are isolated,” said Dr. Toby Cosgrove, President and CEO, of the Cleveland Clinic.
“Interestingly, this is not as highly contagious as many other diseases,” Cosgrove told NBC. “You have to understand that we’ve gone to a globalized world now, and disease are globalized as well. … With transportation, this is something we must learn to deal with.”
“There’s a humanitarian reason for stopping this in West Africa,” noted Dr. Richard Besser, “but the conversation we’ve been having also shows we have a self interest in doing that. The conversation really has to look at what will it take to beef up the health system to control this where it is.”
While officials understood the public’s concerns, they insisted there was no reason to worry.
“I can understand why people are scared of Ebola,” Frieden said on Fox News Sunday. “It’s deadly, it’s a gruesome death … but I hope and I’m confident that our fears are not going to overwhelm our compassion. We care for our own. We bring people home if they need to come home.”
The decision to bring Brantly back to America was made by the organization that sent him to Africa, Frieden said, and the role of CDC is to ensure the process of it is safe, by “isolat[ing] the patient so that it doesn’t spread during transit or when he’s in the hospital.”
Less than a month ago, Frieden appeared before a congressional committee to explain why researchers at the CDC “mishandled live anthrax and other deadly pathogens” on four different occasions. That history, which officials characterize as “lapses,” has resulted in skepticism over the safety of the transportation process.
There is currently no cure for the disease, but a vaccine is being developed and should be ready for human testing in early September.
“We would love an Ebola vaccine,” Frieden said, “but even in the best case, it’s a long way away and it’s uncertain.”
“Really, the tried and true public health mechanisms work. You find the patients. You isolate them. You find out who their contacts were. You trace the contacts. You track them everyday for 21 days. If they get fever you start that process again. You make sure there’s good infection control and you educate the community in Africa about safe burial practices. When you do those simple things, Ebola stops.”
Previous Ebola outbreaks were stopped through the process, Frieden noted, but the current outbreak is “out of control in West Africa and it may well spread further in that region.”
In the meantime, CDC is “surging their response,” sending more researchers to Africa in an effort to control it and “put out the embers.”