Calling the Ebola crisis a “top national security priority,” President Barack Obama on Monday said the U.S. will improve airline passenger screening for the deadly virus to better ensure the outbreak is contained in West Africa.
The move comes as Republican lawmakers increase calls for outright bans on travel to and from the Ebola-ravaged nations, even though the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that travel restrictions will make it harder to get supplies and international medical personnel into troubled the region.
Ebola has killed more than 3,400 people and infected nearly 7,500 in West Africa, according to the World Health Organization.
After meeting with top administration health and national security experts, Obama stood by his decision to reject travel bans, but added that the U.S. would be “working on protocols to do additional passenger screening, both at the source and here in the United States.”
Local authorities working with the U.S. government already screen outbound passengers for Ebola symptoms in countries where the disease is rampant. Travelers are questioned about their contacts, current health and are visually checked for illness as their body temperatures are measured.
Those with a fever above 101.5 degrees or who are otherwise thought to be ill, are taken aside for a more thorough assessment and can be kept off a flight if their health raises concerns.
Once in the U.S., Customs and Border Protection personnel again check passengers for signs of illness. Those with problems are isolated and referred to CDC for a medical assessment.
It’s unclear what measures the Obama administration is contemplating to enhance the airline screening process, but in an interview with CNN on Monday, CDC Director Tom Frieden, said the possibilities are vast.
“We’re looking at all of the options,” Frieden said. “We want to do something that protects Americans, not something that either is done for show or something that won’t have an impact…Part of that means making sure we don’t do anything that will make it harder for us to stop the outbreak in West Africa.”
Obama’s plan to enhance travel screening came as health officials in Spain announced that a nurse there had become the first known person to contract the disease outside of Africa. The woman presumably became infected in Madrid while helping care for a Spanish priest who contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone. He was flown back to Madrid for treatment, where he later died.
Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person diagnosed with Ebola on U.S. soil, continued his fight for life in a Dallas, Texas hospital where he’s in critical condition. Duncan contracted the disease in Africa while transporting an infected pregnant woman to a hospital.
Officials at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital on Monday said, Duncan was being treated with an experimental drug, Brincidofovir, made by Chimerix, a Durham, N.C., drugmaker. Duncan’s physicians asked for the medication and the emergency request was granted by the U.S. Food and Drug and Administration.
Also on Monday, a freelance cameraman who contracted Ebola in Liberia arrived at the Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha where he will be kept in a special bio-containment unit. Ashoka Mukpo, 33, fell ill last week. It’s unclear if Mukpo will be treated with experimental medications, said Dr. Bradley Britigan, dean of the College of Medicine at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“We certainly are really considering all treatment options and obviously (this) will need to be discussed with him because ultimately if there are experimental therapies involved, he’s going to have to be willing to and understand the risks and benefits of those,” Britigan said at a press conference on Monday.
At the same press conference, Mukpo’s father, Dr. Mitchell Levy, said Mukpo believes he contracted the virus while using chlorine spray to disinfect a car that someone with Ebola had died in.
Ebola is transmitted through physical contact with infected bodily fluids, such as blood, feces and vomit. The virus has also been found in breast milk, urine and semen. The World Health Organization said Monday the virus can sustain itself in semen for at least ten full weeks. But one study found it can remain in semen for more than three months.
Some studies have suggested that the virus can be found in saliva and tears, but the actual science is inconclusive, the WHO notes. Studies have shown that Ebola-laden saliva is found mostly in patients with advanced infection.
“The whole live virus has never been isolated from sweat,” WHO noted Monday in a statement.
While the Ebola virus can be transmitted indirectly through contact with contaminated surfaces and objects, the risk of this type of infection is low and can be further reduced with thorough cleaning and disinfecting.
The spread of Ebola through inhalation of airborne droplets of infected bodily fluids “has not been observed during extensive studies of the Ebola virus over several decades,” according to the WHO statement.
“Common sense and observation tell us that spread of the virus via coughing or sneezing is rare, if it happens at all,” the WHO statement said.
But the agency doesn’t rule out the possibility.
“Theoretically, wet and bigger droplets from a heavily infected individual, who has respiratory symptoms caused by other conditions or who vomits violently, could transmit the virus _ over a short distance _ to another nearby person,” the WHO noted. “This could happen when virus-laden heavy droplets are directly propelled, by coughing or sneezing (which does not mean airborne transmission) onto the mucus membranes or skin with cuts or abrasions of another person.”
But the WHO knows of no studies documenting this type of transmission. “On the contrary, good quality studies from previous Ebola outbreaks show that all cases were infected by direct close contact with symptomatic patients.”
Anita Kumar contributed.