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Ebola in the United States

2014-10-01

I have learned from Science News online that a case of Ebola virus illness in the United States has been identified.  A man who appeared to be in good health, and felt well, took a plane from Liberia on September 19 and arrived in the US on the 20th.  On the 24th, he began to have symptoms, was seen on the 26th, and placed under isolation on September 28.  He is at the Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

Since infected people are not capable of passing on the disease until they display symptoms, and the disease is passed on by close contact, there is little concern about transmission in the US.  Prior to embarking on planes, passengers at airports in Liberia are screened for fever, so there has been no concern so far with international spread.  The incubation period is listed as two to twenty-one days, suggesting that this patient was infected shortly before boarding the plane in Liberia.

Ebola virus is not highly infectious, and its spread may seem to be unlikely under good conditions.  The problems with Ebola in Liberia and other West African countries are caused by the generally abysmal state of their health care systems, already collapsing.  As smug, self-satisfied Westerners, we can look with concern but no real alarm on the deaths of thousands, perhaps millions of Africans.  In the worst case, half the population of West Africa could be wiped out in a year, but “it seems unlikely” that Ebola will spread beyond the African continent.

There are no good rules for predicting the future, but we can be sure that the past and the future will be different.  The chances of Ebola becoming a world wide epidemic aren’t as good as the chances that some respiratory disease will spread in the wake of the collapse of a continent’s health care systems.

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