Airline passengers from Africa could soon have to submit to body temperature checks upon arrival in the U.S. as the Obama administration looks to toughen traveler screening requirements in response to the growing Ebola threat.
“That’s the thing that’s on the table right now,” Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health told CNN on Tuesday.
While Tom Frieden, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, wouldn’t confirm the proposal Tuesday in a telephone briefing with reporters, he said additional layers of precaution were forthcoming.
“We’re not today providing the steps that we plan to take, but I can assure you that we will be taking additional steps and we will be making those public in the coming days once we can work out the details,” Frieden said.
Meanwhile, an American doctor hospitalized for possible Ebola infection at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md., was sent home Tuesday, the NIH reported. The unidentified doctor, who faced possible infection after being stuck with a needle while volunteering in Sierra Leone, was admitted to the hospital on Sept. 28.
“Currently, the patient feels well and has no fever,” the NIH said in a statement. His condition will be monitored daily for several weeks while at home .
The Obama administration is moving to stay ahead of growing congressional calls for outright travel restrictions to the U.S. for non-citizens in Ebola-stricken regions of West Africa where the deadly virus is running rampant.
On Tuesday, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., called for a temporary ban on issuing U.S. travel visas to individuals in the affected areas. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Nelson said the restrictions – which would exclude medical personnel – should be in place “until the CDC determines the affected areas no longer pose a threat.”
“While there have been unheeded calls in recent weeks from lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle wanting similar action, I believe it is imperative the administration reconsider temporary, targeted travel restrictions at this time,” Nelson wrote.
The White House and the CDC have steadfastly opposed travel bans on West Africa, arguing the restrictions would make it harder to contain the spread of Ebola in Africa by discouraging international assistance in the area and making it difficult for people to leave the troubled region
Of roughly 36,000 people who were screened before leaving West Africa in the last two months, only 77 were kept off flights because of illness, Frieden said. While many had malaria, none are believed to have had Ebola, Frieden said.
Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola in United States, was breathing with assistance from a respirator and was on dialysis to support his failing kidney functions, Frieden said. Duncan remains in critical condition in a Dallas hospital. He’s being treated with brincidofovir, an experimental medication not specifically designed to treat Ebola. Another Ebola patient, Ashoka Mukpo, is also being treated with the drug while he’s hospitalized at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.
News reports from Norway say a Norwegian health worker who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone is slated to receive the last available dose of ZMapp, an experimental Ebola medication previously thought to be unavailable.
As international aid to West Africa increases, Frieden said health workers are finally seeing progress in the area. He said “cases have plummeted” in Liberia’s Lofa County, which was once the “epicenter of the outbreak.” Frieden wasn’t sure what’s behind the improvement, but he said the abundance of isolation beds for Ebola patients and improved burial practices likely played a role.
“We don’t know that that decrease is going to be maintained,” Frieden said, but “even in a place that was the heart of the outbreak, we’re seeing signs of progress.”
But the outbreak has taken a severe socioeconomic toll on the three most affected countries. Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were just beginning to stabilize after years of civil war and political unrest.
Those countries now face a collective economic loss of $13 billion thus far because of the Ebola crisis, according to a statement Tuesday from the World Health Organization. Those countries’ respective gross domestic products likely will decrease by 2 to 3 percentage points as jobs are lost and productivity suffers.
And with fewer people able to plant and harvest, hunger has become an issue in West Africa. The price of rice has jumped by at least 30 percent in Sierra Leone, the WHO reports. And rice production has fallen by 10 percent in Guinea.
Frieden and the World Health Organization say Ebola is spread only by direct contact with an infected person or from contact with the bodily fluids of an infected person. But Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, has raised questions about Ebola mutating into a virus that can spread through the air. In a recent New York Times article, Osterholm said the medical community is unwisely ignoring the possibility.
“Why are public officials afraid to discuss this?” Osterholm wrote. “They don’t want to be accused of screaming ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater – as I’m sure some will accuse me of doing. But the risk is real, and until we consider it, the world will not be prepared to do what is necessary to end the epidemic.”
On Tuesday, Frieden sought to tamp down growing concern about this “worst-case scenario.”
He said the Ebola virus has shown “a great deal of genetic stability,” and the structure of current virus strain is 99.5 percent the same as it was when the outbreak occurred. That suggests very little structural mutation. In the roughly 50 years since the virus was discovered, Frieden said its genetic structure had changed by less than 5 percent, adding that “the rate of change is much slower than many viruses.”
In addition, all five subspecies of Ebola all spread only by direct contact, Frieden said.
“We do not see airborne transmission in the outbreak in Africa. We don’t see it elsewhere in what we’ve seen so far,” Frieden added.
If the disease were to mutate into an airborne threat, “we would know immediately if that happens,” Frieden said, because epidemiologists constantly monitor the disease on the ground in West Africa.
“Everything we’ve seen till now does not suggest any change in how Ebola spreads,” Frieden reiterated.