Keeping The 'Risks' Of Ebola's Spread In Perspective

Terrence O'Sullivan (uakron.edu)
Terrence O'Sullivan (uakron.edu)
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Health officials say one person in Ohio has been voluntarily quarantined after having household contact with the Texas nurse who recently visited Ohio and was later diagnosed with Ebola.

Summit County officials say the individual self-quarantined yesterday after the family of Amber Joy Vinson was notified that she had developed Ebola symptoms.

It should be mentioned that before the health worker's condition is fully known, and whether she showed symptoms while in Ohio, people should not be unduly panicked, according to Terrence O'Sullivan. O'Sullivan is Director for Emergency management and Homeland Security Policy Research at the University of Akron. He spoke to told ideastream's Tony Ganzer.

O’Sullivan: “The one thing that certainly is going to happen is that the public health authorities are going to go well beyond where they might need just simply to assure the public; the contact tracing—looking for the passengers who may have been near the healthcare worker that came through—and precautionary decontamination of various areas, but the important thing to know here is that in the early stages of Ebola it’s the point at which the person is the least infectious. Now obviously if she had symptoms, it’s possible she was infectious, but if she had a low-grade fever, as she did when she checked into the hospital when she returned to Dallas, she was probably not that infectious. So there’s an excellent chance that she is not going to have infected anyone, but the authorities are not going to take any chances, obviously.”

Ganzer: “This is something we’ve heard many times, but it’s important to say again, that you have to get up real close to somebody to catch Ebola from someone. This is not just casual contact, not even being around a person, like on an airplane, right?”

O’Sullivan: “Generally speaking, but to be fair, if she were contagious on an airplane, and she were to have bodily fluids and touched something, it is possible that somebody could have picked it up by touching a surface. But again, the chances that she would have coughed into her hand, that sort of thing, is far lower for someone like this than it is for flu or cold, because Ebola is not a respiratory virus, it’s a systemic virus, so it’s important not to underestimate the possibility, but generally speaking most people are not going to be at risk.”

Ganzer: “State health department officials said that quarantines and things like that were tools that they had available to them, but they weren’t something that they were just going to employ willy nilly—there has to be a reason before, for example, other passengers on the plane are quarantined for 21 days, or whatever the incubation period is. Is that something you would expect, that we’re still in a wait and see, and just tracking who came into contact with this person?”

O’Sullivan: “Yeah, I would expect so. I think the first thing that would happen, aside from tracking down the passengers and the people who she may have had contact with, is interviews. And they’ll take a few hours, so it’ll take a day or two to track people down and talk to them, and they’ll also obviously talk to flight attendants and other people who were in her vicinity to find out where she may have gone. And only the people who might have been in the most intimate of contact will likely be the ones who will be asked to be cautious, to check in, possibly take their temperatures once or twice a day, but for the vast majority of people that’s not going to happen. Nonetheless, we’ll ask them to keep an eye on their health, and not panic.”

Ganzer: “When we hear that someone went through our airport—Cleveland Hopkins International Airport—when we hear that this person was around Akron, very close to home, it’s a little jarring to know that it’s around us, but how worried really should we be here?”

O’Sullivan: “Certainly for the general public, not worried at all, for the most part, at this point. Ebola is very infectious if you are in intimate contact with people’s bodily fluids, but it is not a very contagious disease. That is to say, it’s not like the flu, it’s not like measles, and other diseases, where you could in theory get it from 10 and 15 feet across the room—you do really have to be in the vicinity of those people’s bodily fluids. It’s important to reassure people, but for those who were on the plane, I certainly would be concerned, if I were one of them, but I wouldn’t be panicking, because these things are not easy to spread in the very early stages.”

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