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Ebola Scare Ruled Out

Canadian health officials have ruled out Ebola as the cause of illness in a Congolese woman who was hospitalized after arriving in Canada from the Congo last Saturday. Health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay is here with more on how well the United States is prepared in case we have a serious viral outbreak.

The Congolese woman had symptoms that doctors felt could be the early signs of the Ebola virus. Right now Canadian health officials are still testing to determine if she may be suffering from an illness similar to Ebola.

The deadly and rare virus has never been seen in North America, but this recent scare left us to wonder, "What if?"

How close a call was this?

I would say, in general, this was a close call. This woman traveled from an area of the world where Ebola has been found. She got on a plane and came to North America where she subsequently felt ill.

While Ebola seems to have been pretty much ruled out as the cause of her illness, there are other viruses that belong to the same category--viral hemorrhagic fever viruses. They are equally as serious and she could still prove to have one of them. The health officials in Canada have stressed that she is getting better and that they are closely watching anyone she came into contact with and that the overall public health risk is very low. But what this situation really brings up is the fact that geographical boundaries are meaningless when it comes to the spread of disease.

How are these viruses spread?

The viral hemorrhagic fever viruses are all spread by coming into close contact with bodily fluids--like blood. You cannot contract them by simply being around someone who is ill. Close contact is needed, which in fact is how outbreaks in Africa occurred. Part of the funeral process included close contact with the corpse, bathing it and preparing it for burial. This was how the infection was passed around until this practice was stopped.

What everybody wants to know is, "How prepared are we if Ebola were to hit this country?"

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) does indeed have a plan for this and in fact it is published in their Web site. Basic plans include reporting a suspected case to both local authorities and to the CDC. And then specific guidelines include quarantining that person in a negative-pressure room. People attending the patient would have to wear special suits to prevent airborne particles from passing disease. Only in the latest, most serious stages of the disease is this a problem.

How in general can we prevent viruses like this from coming to this country?

Well in many cases we simply can't. Many viruses have an incubation period that is days or even weeks long, during which time people appear completely well. They travel without symptoms and only fall ill once they are here. So it would be hard to pick someone out of a crowd who is carrying a srious disease. What we need to keep in perspective is that Hollywood scenarios are really only that, and that risk to overall public health is slim.

According to Barbara Reynolds and Chuck Fallis, spokespersons for the CDC based in Atlanta, the news that the woman does not have the fatal Ebola virus is "good news." Ebola is a rare virus. It takes close contact with an individual for it to be transferred. Usually you need to be exposed to an infected person's bodily fluid to get infected, and it is fatal.

But if the woman did have the disease, there is an emerging infectious disease plan in effect to deal with such situations. The plan prepares healthcare professionals to deal with an infectious disease.

The plan says that patients such as this woman should be hospitalized, transported, isolated, and treated. Measures should be taken to protect healthcare staff and individuals who are exposed to the patient. Public education is begun about what the risks involved with the vius are.

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