Ebola Outbreak in North America?

It could be just a plane ride away.

Ebola, the deadly virus that kills many of the people it infects and for which there is no known cure, has hit central African countries, but to date there have been no confirmed cases in North America.

On Wednesday, public health officials announced that a woman hospitalized in Hamilton, Ontario, after becoming ill after flying from Congo to Canada was not suffering from Ebola virus, although there was concern Tuesday she might have been.

Still, the mere suspicion that someone might be suffering from the Ebola virus is enough to put public health officials on red alert.

And, given increased international travel these days, some observers are wondering: could a North American debut of the virus be ahead?

More Ebola Cases in Future?

"It is not impossible" that an Ebola outbreak could occur in North America, says Ann Marie Kimball, an epidemiologist with the School of Public Health at the University of Washington, Seattle. "We live in an age in which the travel time is shorter than the incubation for a disease. You can get infected, go on a plane for 13 or 14 hours and still have two to three days to get sick."

Historically, Kimball says, people would travel by ship and their symptoms would show up by the time they reached port and they could be quarantined. Not so with air travel. "Given travel time today, we may see an increasing number of people becoming ill when they arrive in this country, which makes disease control impossible."

But even if North America's first case of Ebola is confirmed, it is unlikely that many people will have been put at risk of infection, others suggest.

Physicians at Toronto General Hospital told Reuters that outbreaks of Ebola are unlikely to be repeated in Canada, because of sufficient hygenic hospital supplies.

And Tom Kerkering, professor of medicine at the Medical College of Virginia in Richmond, said he felt there "was no fear of an outbreak" based on what Canadian health officials were saying, because the woman in question apparently did not exchange any bodily fluid with travelers on her plane ride. He noted that the way the virus is transmitted is through contact with body fluids, such as saliva and semen.

‘Only a Matter of Time’

In the future one might see sporadic cases of Ebola among travelers, Kerkering added, but said but will probably not see the epidemic as is seen in Africa. In Africa, doctors, health professionals and family members in close contact with an infected person would come down with the disease, he noted. There, relatives often handled the dead bodies of victims, touching open sores and becoming exposed.

With improved infection control, Kimball says, transmission rates decreased.

When it attacks, Ebola is particularly virulent, killing quickly and giving the body little time to launch an effective immune response. Infected individuals suffer severe pain, high fever and extensive internal bleeding. All doctors can do is provide fluids to restore the lost blood. While the virus periodically strikes humans, scientists do not know where in nature it resides between outbreaks.

"The possibility that this deadly virus has reached North America focuses attention on the need to fortify our ability to detect and handle outbreaks of infectious diseases," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, said in a statement.

"It is only a matter of time before the Ebola virus reaches North America, whether this time or the next. Any infectious disease — even the world's most deadly virus — is only an airplane flight away from our shores."

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