Experts try to tamp fears of airline Ebola risk

Video cameras at Liberia’s Monrovia airport showed Patrick Sawyer lying on his stomach to ease his discomfort on July 23 before he boarded the first of two flights that would carry him – and the deadly Ebola virus – to Nigeria.

Sawyer, a Liberian-American whose widow and children live in Minnesota, became severely ill from Ebola during his flights to Togo and then Lagos, Nigeria, where he died a couple of days later after infecting 18 others.

But U.S. air travelers spooked by news that an Ebola-infected nurse flew between Dallas and Cleveland this week might actually take comfort in the fallout from Sawyer’s ill-advised journey.

The Liberian newspaper New Dawn said he seemed to consciously avoid contact with others before departing Monrovia, and no evidence has surfaced that Sawyer passed the disease to any airline passenger.

“The Nigerian government tried to track down every passenger on one of the planes he was on,” said Stephen Morse, an epidemiologist at New York’s Columbia University. “I think they found 55 or 56 (passengers). . . . Although there hasn’t been a final report on this, I think we would have known if one of them had Ebola.”

U.S. health care experts stress that, unlike smallpox and many flu viruses in which germs spread through the air, Ebola hemorrhagic fever is so far known to be transmitted only through body fluids – such as sweat, saliva, blood, vomit, urine and feces – and only from those of a person showing symptoms.

As a result, experts stress that chances of air travelers contracting the illness are extremely low.

Nonetheless, Dallas nurse Amber Vinson’s travel on a crowded Frontier Airlines flight the day before she was diagnosed with the disease sent a chill through the air travel industry and cast a cloud over public health officials’ pronouncements that it’s safe to fly.

Some passengers donned masks and gloves this week, and one was photographed Thursday awaiting a flight in a homemade hazardous material suit at Washington Dulles International Airport.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which mistakenly cleared Vinson to fly back to Dallas from Cleveland, is attempting to monitor the health of all 132 passengers on the plane. Frontier announced it would take the aircraft out of service to disinfect it, but that was after it had flown several more routes.

In Congress, politicians from both political parties stepped up calls for a ban on travel to the United States from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – the three West African countries where some 9,000 people have been stricken, about half mortally.

And the health and safety chief for the Service Employees International Union told McClatchy that an array of aircraft cleaning contractors are not properly training and equipping employees who face potential exposure to the deadly virus, especially in on-board lavatories.

Airline officials sought to tamp down the fear.

“The CDC has consistently noted that there is virtually no risk to air travelers, no matter where you travel,” said Victoria Day, chief spokeswoman for Airlines for America, a trade group representing eight U.S. passenger carriers, including the largest. “There are screening procedures in place today in West Africa, in the United States and in Europe, and airlines have always had the authority, as granted by the Congress, to restrict passengers whose travel might cause harm to themselves or others.”

But Michael Osterholm, the internationally known head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, raised a red flag at a symposium at Johns Hopkins University this week. Stressing how little scientists know about Ebola, he said that he has spoken with “a number of Ebola virologists who are very concerned” about the possibility that airborne transmission could occur.

Air travel will play a central role in the degree to which the virus spreads around the world.

Health officials acknowledge that current airport screening methods are far from foolproof, relying mainly on thermometers to gauge whether a traveler has a high fever and on interviews with those from West Africa to see whether they’ve been in contact with Ebola victims.

Five U.S. airports that initially receive nearly all daily travelers from the three African nations – in New York, Newark, N.J., Washington, Atlanta and Chicago – are screening inbound travelers.

But since the virus’ incubation period can extend as long as 21 days, non-symptomatic travelers can carry it around the world before becoming ill – and infectious.

Morse said that multiple teams are researching ways to diagnose the disease at earlier stages, perhaps through a blood test that could enable authorities to identify travelers such as Thomas Eric Duncan, who brought the disease from Liberia to Dallas.

But based on past experience, Morse said, such a test is unlikely to be ready anytime soon.

The Centers for Disease Control has issued extensive guidelines for shielding airline crews, cleaners and cargo workers from Ebola, including advising them how to respond if a passenger vomits or experiences diarrhea – a red flag signaling that the deadly germ may be present.

Mark Catlin, health and safety director for the Service Employees International Union, praised the guidelines but said they should have been directed at employers.

He said the union, which represents about 8,400 ground workers and is attempting to organize another 18,000, has heard reports from employees who “weren’t aware that there was a CDC guidance on Ebola,” have been issued no equipment or haven’t been trained in how to use it.

“There were workers handed summary sheets of the CDC guidance and told to sign them as evidence they’ve been trained,” Catlin said.