By Roberta Rampton and Richard Valdmanis
President Barack Obama said on Monday that the government would develop expanded screening of airline passengers for Ebola, both in the West African countries hit by the disease and the United States.
The first patient diagnosed with the disease on US soil, Thomas Eric Duncan, remained in critical condition in a Dallas hospital, as Obama was briefed by agencies involved in fighting the spread of the deadly virus.
The president said it was important to follow existing protocols strictly.
“But we’re also going to be working on protocols to do additional passenger screening, both at the source and here in the United States,” Obama said.
However, the White House said that a ban on travel from West African countries, which some US officials have called for, would slow the fight against Ebola.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said officials did not want to impede transport systems used to send supplies and personnel to the hardest-hit countries in West Africa, so a travel ban was not being considered.
Airlines for America, a Washington-based trade group, separately said it would meet health and safety officials on Monday to discuss whether additional screening procedures anywhere in the world might help improve on those already in place.
Authorities in the United States and the public are on alert following Duncan’s diagnosis just over a week ago, raising concerns that the worst epidemic of Ebola on record could spread from West Africa.
Duncan – who flew to the United States via Brussels and Washington from Liberia after helping a woman who later died of Ebola – is fighting for his life in a Dallas hospital. The Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital initially sent him away with antibiotics, only to have him return two days later in an ambulance.
Health officials said none of the 10 people who were being monitored after having had direct contact with Duncan are so far showing signs of Ebola symptoms. Ebola, which can cause fever, vomiting and diarrhea, spreads through contact with bodily fluids such as blood or saliva.
Concern about the virus is also high in Europe, where the first case of Ebola being contracted outside of West Africa was reported on Monday. Spanish health officials said a nurse who treated a priest repatriated to Madrid with Ebola last month, and who died of the disease, had also been infected.
Texas Health Presbyterian said on Monday that Duncan has been receiving the experimental drug brincidofovir since Saturday.
The drug was developed by Chimerix Inc, which said it has been tested in more than 1,000 patients without raising safety concerns. “Chimerix has brincidofovir tablets available for immediate use in clinical trials,” the company said in a statement.
People leaving Ebola-affected countries are asked to fill out a questionnaire on whether they have symptoms such as a high fever and whether or not they have had any contact with someone who was diagnosed with Ebola. In Liberia, at least, they also are scanned for fever.
Obama said on Monday that “the chances of an outbreak – of an epidemic here are extraordinarily low.” He also said some other countries were not doing enough to fight the disease at its source in West Africa.
“I’ll be honest with you: Although we have seen interest on the part of the international community, we have not seen other countries step up,” the president said. “We’ve had some small countries that are punching above their weight on this but we’ve got some large countries that aren’t doing enough.”
Several health experts and lawmakers have asked the administration to consider enhancing US airport and customs screenings, including checking travelers using handheld fever scanners.
Texas Governor Rick Perry, announcing the formation of a state task force on infectious diseases Monday, said that there were “mistakes” with handling the Ebola diagnosis in Dallas, but defended the state’s overall public health management.
“I stand by the fact that the process is working,” Perry said. “We don’t have an outbreak. We have one event that is being handled properly.”
Perry also called for enhanced screening procedures by US Customs and Border Patrol agents, including “obtaining more information about people who are coming from affected areas and taking appropriate steps upon arrival.”
The death toll from the disease has been rising in three impoverished West African countries: Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea. The current Ebola outbreak has killed at least 3,439 people since it began in March, out of nearly 7,500 confirmed, probable and suspected cases.
In addition to those three countries, the tally includes Nigeria and Senegal, where Ebola is believed to have been contained, and the one case in the United States.
Meanwhile, the fifth American to contract Ebola in West Africa arrived in the United States for treatment on Monday. A private plane carrying Ashoka Mukpo, 33, a freelance television cameraman for NBC News, landed in Omaha from Liberia and was taken to the Nebraska Medical Center.