It’s an interesting question. Just in case you hadn’t heard the news, the first case of Ebola had been reported from the most recent outbreak in Africa. A patient flying from Liberia to the US showed no signs of the disease until well after he landed in the US. This opens up a whole lot of questions about how to restrict the spread of the disease.
At a basic level, I think one of the things that might make this scary for many folks is that the incubation period (time it takes for someone to actually show symptoms) was long enough for an infected person to fly thousands of miles and come into close contact with enough people to cause an epidemic if infected and not contained.
To be clear, I think a widespread epidemic in the US is highly unlikely, regardless of the picture painted in the movie Outbreak, with Dustin Hoffman, Rene Russo and a young Cuba Gooding Jr.
From the news reports, the US has been slow to respond along with the rest of the “first world” countries and send aid to the hot zones in Africa. Sending aid isn’t just for our own protection, it’s the humanitarian thing to do.
It’s important to understand that you’re unlikely to become infected with the current strain of Ebola just by being near someone who has it. It’s believed that it can only be passed via bodily fluid and there’s a lot of science to back that up. It can, however, live on a contact surface, such as counters, door knobs, etc. This is where good hand washing and sanitizing is an effective way to combat it.
But, should you get on a plane? Let’s break it down to two categories.
Is it safe to fly in the US?
It’s highly likely you’re fine flying in the US. Sure, there’s a reported case in the US. But there are effective controls at the airports in the Africa hot zones. The chances someone makes it on to a plane while exhibiting symptoms is remote. The infected passenger from Liberia was something of a semi-perfect storm by getting infected and boarding a plane before he showed symptoms AND being sent home by the first doctor he saw because they didn’t connect the dots on Ebola. That’s unlikely to happen again.
Is it safe to fly internationally?
This is definitely a bit of a mixed bag. Non-essential travel to Sierra Leone or Liberia is certainly more risky than flying to London or Paris. To say there’s no risk flying to a large European gateway city like London or Paris would be as disingenuous as saying someone could end up in the US with Ebola. Considering the fact that the current outbreak has been ongoing for more than 6 months, one could argue it’s surprising we haven’t seen a case here sooner, especially given our apparent lack of participation prior to September in bringing the outbreak under control.
It’s not an airborne disease, like SARS, so the associated risk being near people who could be infected is minimized, especially if they’re asymptomatic.
I think it’s irrational to curtail travel to areas that aren’t “hot zones” but prudent to use caution around people who are visibly ill and to practice good hygiene, washing hands frequently.
Without building too big a soap box, it’s also reasonable to think that the US should have intervened sooner. The world has a lot less super powers now than it may have in the past. My two cents, it shouldn’t take a crisis with ten times a record number of cases to spur action. Call it self-preservation if you must, but we’d want someone to throw us the same lifeline if we were in the sort of bind that the ground zero areas in Africa are experiencing right now.
Bottom Line? The sky is not falling. US citizens are not likely targets for Ebola in the current climate. We have the ability to fight this outbreak. Here’s hoping the suffering has reached its peak.