By Susan Heavey
Health experts are monitoring “a handful” of people who were potentially exposed to Ebola through physical contact with the first patient diagnosed with the deadly virus in the United States, the top U.S. public health official said on Wednesday.
Health officials confirmed the first case of the virus in the country on Tuesday, when a man who flew from Liberia to Texas tested positive for Ebola, which has killed more than 3,000 people in three countries in West Africa.
Texas health officials said healthcare workers have tested negative for the virus and there are no other suspected cases in the state. The healthcare workers will be closely monitored for the next 21 days, the time it can take for symptoms of the hemorrhagic fever to appear.
“We have a seven-person team in Dallas today helping to review that with the family and make sure we identify everyone that could have had contact with him,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said in an interview with NBC TV’s “Today” show.
Officials were looking at family members the patient visited and healthcare providers who helped treat him, which amounted to “a handful” of people, according to Frieden.
The patient was in serious condition, a Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital spokeswoman said on Wednesday. The man was admitted on Sunday, and the hospital did not describe his condition at the time of Tuesday’s announcement that he had Ebola.
The patient was evaluated initially last Friday and sent home with antibiotics, a critical missed opportunity that could result in others being exposed to the virus, infectious disease experts said.
Ebola spreads through contact with bodily fluids like blood or saliva, which health experts say limits its potential to infect others, unlike airborne diseases. Still, the long window of time before patients exhibit signs of infection, such as fever, vomiting and diarrhea, means an infected person can travel without detection.
The virus can be fatal. While past outbreaks killed as many as 90 percent of victims, the current outbreak has an average fatality rate of about 50 percent.
The patient in the United States, who was not identified for privacy reasons, arrived in Texas on Sept. 20, and first sought treatment six days later, according to the CDC.
The Liberian government said that the man showed no signs of fever or other symptoms of Ebola when he left Liberia on Sept. 19. A Liberian official said the man traveled through Brussels to the United States.
On Wednesday, officials repeated a call to healthcare workers to be vigilant in screening patients in the United States for possible signs of the virus.
“If you have someone who’s been in West Africa in the past 21 days and they’ve got a fever or other symptoms that might be consistent with Ebola, immediately isolate them, get them tested,” Frieden told NBC.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said on CNN that emergency room personnel should get information on patients’ travel history if they show possible symptoms, calling it “an enormous red flag.”
U.S. health authorities have said every step was being taken to ensure Ebola does not spread widely in the United States and have expressed confidence that it can be contained. Frieden briefed President Barack Obama on Tuesday and they discussed isolation protocols.
“People can be confident here in this country that we have the medical infrastructure in place to prevent the broad spread of Ebola,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on CNN.
Shares of a number of drugmakers with Ebola treatments in the pipeline rose on Wednesday, and airline stocks and hotel company shares dropped over concerns that worries about Ebola might hurt travel
Some health experts have said that, given the information from the CDC so far, a widespread outbreak in the United States appears unlikely from this single case. They note that doctors, nurses and other healthcare providers routinely use gloves, masks and gowns when examining patients.
Tom Solomon, an emerging infections expert at the University of Liverpool in Britain, said “the chances of it becoming established in America or other Western countries is very small.”
Meanwhile, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim, the first public health expert to lead the institution, said fighting Ebola means confronting inequality, as people in poor countries have less access to knowledge and infrastructure for treating the sick and containing it.