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Fears of U.S. Ebola Outbreak Unwarranted, Experts Say

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Aug. 6, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- The decision to bring two American aid workers infected with Ebola back to the United States has kicked up controversy, causing some to fear a local outbreak of the killer virus.

But experts in infectious disease say there's close to no chance that Dr. Kent Brantly or Nancy Writebol will cause an Ebola outbreak on these shores.

"The risk of spreading it from those two people approximates zero," said Dr. Lee Norman, chief medical officer for the University of Kansas Hospital and an expert on Ebola.

However, according to CNN, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta has received hate email and angry phone calls over the decision.

Prominent commentators, including billionaire Donald Trump, also have questioned the wisdom of bringing the aid workers home. "Ebola patient will be brought to the U.S. in a few days -- Now I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent. KEEP THEM OUT OF HERE!" Trump said in one tweet, CNN reported.

It's understandable that the news might initially alarm some people, Norman said.

"Anything new that's a horrible infectious disease is going to generate a lot of questions and a lot of concerns," he said.

But while Ebola is a very deadly virus -- already responsible for 932 deaths in the West African outbreak -- it is not an easy one to catch, experts stressed.

First of all, the virus is not airborne, so you can't get it by simply being in close proximity to a patient, as you might a cold or a flu virus. Ebola only spreads through direct contact with a victim's body fluids, explained Dr. Ambreen Khalil, an infectious disease specialist at Staten Island University Hospital in New York City.

That means it's very unlikely a person will contract Ebola just by being in the same room, airplane, bus or elevator as someone with the virus -- particularly if the person is not yet showing symptoms of illness from Ebola, which include bleeding, vomiting and diarrhea.

"Let's say you come across someone at the airport who is not symptomatic," Khalil said. "Unless you somehow are exposed to their blood, you are not going to get it from them."

The United States also differs in many crucial ways from West Africa that make an Ebola outbreak here both unlikely and more easily contained.

People often live in very close contact with each other in Africa, with a dozen or more family members in the same house, experts noted. Also, West African burial practices often involve family members washing and preparing the body, which puts people in direct contact with Ebola-laden body fluid, Khalil and Norman said.

In the United States, people live much more spread out, and professionals handle the preparation of a body for burial.

Health care and public health services in the United States also are much more savvy when it comes to controlling infectious disease, Khalil said.

Doctors and nurses are quick to put sick people in protective isolation, and to protect themselves with bio-suits.

"Even people who are taking care of them have a minimal risk of becoming infected," Khalil said of the two patients being treated in Atlanta. "Every day we take care of people with influenza and active TB, which both are more infectious than Ebola."

That said, Norman added that he fully expects Ebola to come into the United States and Europe at some point in the future. However, being able to treat Brantly and Writebol in the United States actually gives doctors and other medical staff valuable experience, so that they can learn more about the virus and make better preparations.

"We know what we're dealing with now and can deal with it," he said. "I think we're going to learn a lot more about the biology of the virus over time."

Khalil hopes that initial public panic over the return of the aid workers eventually will cool, and people will instead focus on the sacrifices they made to help others.

"They should be looked upon as heroes," she said. "These are very selfless people who went out of their way to help people who are dying from this disease. We should not be so caught up in ourselves that all we can think is, 'Oh, am I going to get it?'"

Brantly, 33, is a family physician from Texas who serves as medical director of the Samaritan's Purse treatment center in the Liberian capital city of Monrovia. Writebol, 59, is a hygienist who works for a group allied with Samaritan's Purse.

Brantly arrived at Emory University Hospital on Saturday, and was strong enough to walk into the hospital. Writebol arrived on Tuesday and was taken in by stretcher, covered head to toe in a protective suit.

Both are reported to be in stable condition.

More information

For more on the Ebola virus, head to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Lee Norman, M.D., chief medical officer, University of Kansas Hospital, Kansas City; Ambreen Khalil, M.D., infectious disease specialist, Staten Island University Hospital, New York City; CNN

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