Ebola Unlikely In U.S., But Preparations Underway

Aug 21, 2014

Grim news about the Ebola virus is filling the airwaves these days. And although the chances of contracting the disease outside of West Africa are extremely slim, American hospitals are preparing for a possible outbreak. Colleges are also starting to get questions from parents about whether international students could carry the virus to campuses.

Dr. Tim Lahey is an infectious disease specialist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, and he’s been following this epidemic closely. He says that while the disease is deadly, it is confined to four West African nations — Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and one city in Nigeria. It spreads quickly and often fatally through bodily fluids. But Lahey says medical workers can easily protect themselves with gloves, masks, eyewear and gowns.

And the risk that someone would bring the virus to the United States, he believes, is negligible.

Tim Lahey is an infectious disease specialist and associate professor of medicine at the Geisel School of Medicine.
Credit Mark Washburn / Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center

“There’s almost no chance that even nurses and doctors in the United States could get this. And the reason for that is that among the roughly 2,000 people that have Ebola virus disease, very, very few of them can get on a plane and come to one of the developing world countries,” Lahey said.

However, Lahey says Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center has a plan to deal with Ebola, just as it has protocols for other, more common outbreaks, like tuberculosis. The plans include early detection and training workers to use protective gear. And he says colleges and other institutions visited or attended by international travelers are also setting policies to remain Ebola-free.

“It certainly would make sense for a college to be aware of whether they have a large number of people from afflicted countries so they can be ready to detect and handle any Ebola virus cases, but also at the same time they would want to do it in a kind of routine manner and not have an overly robust sense of concern about it,” he says.

Chances are much greater, Lahey says, that a student would have tuberculosis or HIV. Still, The Dartmouth College Health Service has posted a travel advisory, telling people to avoid unnecessary trips to the affected countries. Co-Director Jack Turco says he knows of no students coming to the school from those countries, but of course it’s impossible to know who might have travelled through them. So he says everyone who walks through the door of the health service will be asked if they have been to Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, or Nigeria in the last four weeks. If they answer yes, they will be monitored by New Hampshire health authorities.

"It certainly would make sense for a college to be aware of whether they have a large number of people from afflicted countries so they can be ready to detect and handle any Ebola virus cases, but also at the same time they would want to do it in a kind of routine manner and not have an overly robust sense of concern about it." - Dr. Tim Lahey

“After discussing it with the Public Health department we will alert the Public Health Department who will have a conversation with those individuals to try to assess what level of exposure they may or not have,” Turco said.

Turco says if the travelers had merely stayed in a hotel in those areas, they would not be considered high risk. On the other hand, if they had visited a household where the virus had spread, they would be watched more closely for symptoms, which include a high fever.

Still, he says, if Dartmouth medical professionals decide to go abroad to offer help with the outbreak, he trusts them to protect themselves.

Dr. Tim Lahey agrees, and urges Americans to do what they can — including making financial contributions—to assist developing nations fight this deadly disease.